Texas-Louisiana border areas hit hardest by Hurricane Rita

By Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In the days after Hurricane Rita hit communities along the Texas-Louisiana border Sept. 24, information about the extent of any damage was difficult to obtain.

The second hurricane to sweep into the Gulf Coast region in a month, Rita veered east of the most heavily populated parts of Texas, rather than hitting the Galveston-Houston area head-on as had earlier been feared.

The storm's path brought it ashore closer to Louisiana at the Texas coastal town of Sabine Pass, near Port Arthur.

New reports Sept. 28 said that highways leading to Lake Charles, La., which took much of the brunt of the storm, remained blocked to residents wanting to return.

Morris LeBleu, director of communications for the Lake Charles Diocese and editor of its diocesan newspaper, The Southwest Catholic, sent Catholic News Service an e-mail from Baton Rouge, La., Sept. 27 reporting on some conditions in his diocese.

He said videotape footage he saw of the area showed that in lower Cameron Parish, the civil entity in the southernmost part of the diocese, "all churches are either gone or severely damaged."

"Though I am unable to verify the damage, those churches are within a mile or two of the Gulf of Mexico," he wrote. LeBleu listed seven parish and mission churches.

Several other churches apparently suffered severe damage, he said, though he did not have many details.

LeBleu also said that the administrator of the diocese, Msgr. Harry D. Greig, "rode out the storm in Lake Charles with another of our diocesan priests." The diocese has been without a bishop since Bishop Edward K. Braxton, installed there in February 2001, was named to the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., earlier this year.

In Texas, Bishop Curtis J. Guillory of Beaumont announced that his chancery has been temporarily relocated to the Cameron Retreat Center at the St. Dominic Center in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. Bishop Guillory and another member of his staff rode out the hurricane without incident, but moved up to Houston when it became clear electricity would not be restored quickly.

About 20 staff members of the Diocese of Beaumont were working at the temporary headquarters in Houston, and some were also living there.

But Sister Esther Dunegan, a Sister of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament who is Beaumont diocesan chancellor, said the number was not expected to grow.

"Until we get everything up and running there's really nothing to do," she said. "We would ask that other chancery staff remain where they are and take care of their families."

The chancery office in Beaumont, as well as all schools and parishes in the diocese, were still closed days after Hurricane Rita tore its way up the Texas-Louisiana border. Diocesan properties were plagued by the lack of electricity and water and sewer service, according to a news release.

As of early Sept. 29, the diocesan Web site, www.dioceseofbmt.org, was still not functioning, although efforts were being made to re-establish the site, which the diocese asked its faithful to check.

"I would ask people to continue to pray, to ask almighty God to guide us and to particularly be with the first respondents who are putting the city and the area of southeast Texas back together," Bishop Guillory said. "I want people to know they are in my prayers, and as soon as areas are reopened, parishes will be opened so that they can begin to celebrate the Eucharist and other sacraments, as well as our schools."

Karen Gilman, editor of the East Texas Catholic, Beaumont's diocesan newspaper, told CNS Sept. 27 that she had visited most of the parishes close to Beaumont, and none had major damage. The copper coating on the dome of the recently renovated St. Anthony Cathedral had peeled away, leaving a hole, but otherwise the damage there was minor.

However, parishes in some areas were surely destroyed or severely damaged, based upon aerial photography showing more than 5 feet of standing water in the town of Sabine Pass, Texas, Gilman said.

She had left Beaumont well into the day Sept. 23, after Rita's path shifted more eastward than earlier predictions had put it, so she avoided the jams of traffic headed north and instead went west to Houston to wait out the storm. She headed back to Beaumont Sept. 26.

Meanwhile, Erik Noriega, editor of the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Houston-based Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, had heeded earlier warnings to evacuate and gone to Dallas to wait out the storm. Normal operations resumed at archdiocesan offices Sept. 28.

He said it seemed the archdiocese had received a fairly light blow from Rita. He told CNS Sept. 28 that diocesan property had little damage worse than a few shingles torn from roofs and some damage from fallen trees.

When Hurricane Rita hit coastal areas of southwestern Louisiana, heavy rains caused severe flooding and strong winds knocked down trees and power lines.

Tom Sommers, editor of the Acadiana Catholic, diocesan newspaper of Lafayette, La., said his family evacuated but he stayed at home, thinking the hurricane was heading more toward Texas.

"I'll never do that again," he told CNS, noting how the 80 to 90 mph winds shook his home in Crowley, about 30 miles west of Lafayette. The winds knocked some shingles off his roof but did not cause any other damage to his home.

Lafayette's diocesan offices were operating according to their usual schedule. The newspaper, which goes to press on Thursdays, was to come out as scheduled, although Sommers said the paper's layout would be redone to include hurricane information.

A preliminary diocesan report noted that 10 churches in the diocese had flood damage. In many parishes, the damage occurred in rectories, parish halls and cemeteries. Lafayette Bishop Michael Jarrell sent a letter to all pastors prior to Hurricane Rita urging them to follow evacuation protocols and to take all sacramental records with them.

Sherry Swaney Heflin, editor of the Catholic Connection, diocesan newspaper in Shreveport, La., said her diocese had not been hit hard by the storm, which mainly knocked down trees and power lines but did not cause significant flooding. She said the chancellor's office as of Sept. 26 was not aware of damaged churches.

The Diocese of Alexandria, La., also had not yet received reports of damage, but the diocesan offices were closing early Sept. 26 following a mandatory order that nonessential businesses close because of low water pressure. They were urged to stay closed until the following day at noon.

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Contributing to this story were Patricia Zapor and Carol Zimmermann in Washington.

Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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