Louisianans face long recovery from Katrina, New Orleans flooding

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Many Catholic churches and schools across Louisiana pitched in to provide meals, shelter and services for Gulf Coast refugees from Hurricane Katrina and from the massive flooding of New Orleans that followed -- one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit the United States.

Archbishop Alfred E. Hughes of New Orleans and Bishop Robert W. Muench of Baton Rouge appeared on television Aug. 31 with Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco as the governor declared a day of prayer.

Archbishop Hughes, who has set up temporary operating quarters in Baton Rouge, thanked the governor for "designating this moment for prayer."

"God has brought us to our knees in the face of disaster," he said. "We are so overwhelmed, we do not really know how to respond. Powerlessness leads us to prayer. And we know when we turn to God, God offers us his grace."

"It looks like it's going to be a long haul -- a very long haul," said Divine Providence Sister Mary Bordelon, Alexandria diocesan director of Catholic Community Services. Alexandria is about 150 miles northwest of New Orleans but Sister Bordelon said the Coliseum, a domed arena that can hold more than 5,000 people, was being turned into a shelter for flood and storm victims.

"There are a lot of refugees from southern Louisiana," she said. "We're just trying to deal with people as they come in."

She said the retreat center in the diocese has taken in 36 Holy Family Sisters who had to evacuate their motherhouse in New Orleans, and the local Catholic high school had become a temporary shelter for the evacuated residents of a nursing home near Houma, about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans.

The Alexandria Diocese was not in Katrina's direct path and did not suffer much damage, Sister Bordelon said, although the eastern portion, along the Mississippi River, had some power outages.

Peter P. Finney Jr., editor of the Clarion Herald, New Orleans archdiocesan newspaper, said by phone from Baton Rouge Aug. 31 that he and some of his staff were at the office when Katrina hit Aug. 29. Several windows were blown out and "it was pretty scary," he said.

The next day he and his family evacuated and were taken in by Laura Deavers, editor of The Catholic Commentator in Baton Rouge. Finney said he lived just five blocks south of Lake Ponchartrain, the massive lake whose breached levees flooded New Orleans Aug. 30. "I think our house is gone," he said.

Deavers said Bishop Muench was convening a meeting of priests and diocesan officials the afternoon of Aug. 31 to map out plans for disaster response by parishes and diocesan institutions. She said the diocese was providing space for Archbishop Hughes, a former Baton Rouge bishop, to set up field headquarters until it is possible to resume operations in New Orleans.

"Baton Rouge is fine," apart from some power outages and a few fallen trees, she said, but the damage to New Orleans and coastal regions of Mississippi and Alabama "is just incredible."

"We really don't know how bad New Orleans is," she added. "There are areas where there will be nothing (left)."

Finney said the city's historic St. Louis Cathedral lost a few slate roof tiles but otherwise was undamaged, and as far as he knew the French Quarter, where the cathedral is located, had not flooded. He added that when the hurricane knocked down a large oak tree in St. Anthony's Garden behind the cathedral, the tree narrowly missed a Sacred Heart statue.

Notre Dame Seminary "had some windows blown out and some flooding," he said, and the archbishop's residence nearby had some water damage.

He said New Orleans Auxiliary Bishop Roger P. Morin was at the seminary during the hurricane and during a lull in the storm went across the street to his home nearby to get some fresh clothes. When the bishop tried to return to the seminary a short time later, he found Carrollton Avenue flooded and had to wade through about three feet of water to make it back, Finney said.

Thomas R. Sommers, editor of the Lafayette diocesan newspaper, Acadiana Catholic, reported that all the Jesuits who were living at the order's New Orleans provincial headquarters have taken up residence in the Jesuit Spirituality Center in Grand Coteau, north of Lafayette.

He said Anna Larriviere, Lafayette diocesan superintendent of schools, has announced that schools throughout the diocese will take in displaced Catholic students from New Orleans "as space permits."

Lafayette diocesan officials are working with Red Cross officials to coordinate Catholic efforts with the broader relief program across the diocese, he said.

Jesuit Father Charles L. Currie, Washington-based president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, which represents 28 Jesuit institutes of higher learning, said the Loyola University campus in New Orleans is on relatively high ground and apparently was safe from the flooding.

But with warnings that it may be 12 weeks or more before the city can be inhabited again, other Jesuit institutions across the country have taken steps to accept Loyola students in the meantime, he said.

He said Spring Hill College in Alabama has already accepted about 30 Loyola students and a number of others have indicated that they've received "about six to 12" applications.

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Contributing to this report were Peter Finney and Laura Deavers in Baton Rouge and Thomas Sommers in Lafayette.

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