The Franciscans and the Flooded Ninth Ward
A safe place from the water
2005 David J. Phillip/Pool/Reuters
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St. Mary of the Angels parish, in New Orleans’s flood-devastated lower Ninth Ward, is served by the Franciscans. The neighborhood had overcome many obstacles in recent years as residents organized to keep the area safe and free from crime (See related article). All that is suddenly history, as the pastor, Franciscan Father Bart Pax, wonders what will happen next.

Over the past week the parish school rooftop became a refuge for many people in neighborhood, who waited for days until Coast Guard helicopters finally rescued them. The choppers started evacuating on Wednesday and got everyone out by Thursday. During the preceding days, Father Bart had at one point built a makeshift raft and floated several hundred yards to the parish rectory to get the remaining supplies of food and water. One man, who was quite sick when he arrived, passed away during the wait.

What follows is from Toni Cashnelli, communications director for the Franciscans.

School is a refuge from the storm

The question asked of everyone trapped in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was, "Why did you stay?"

For the friars who minister at St. Mary of the Angels Parish in the Ninth Ward, the answer is simple. "Our neighborhood is very poor," says Associate Pastor Luis Aponte-Merced. "They had a mandatory evacuation and those people had no means of getting out. A lot were elderly or frail, some single moms with babies." Leaving their neighbors behind was never an option.

Instead, Luis, Pastor Bart Pax and Associate Tony Walter chose to stay, opening the doors of their three-story school building to the community. "We were never expecting the hurricane to be so devastating," says Luis. And they never expected the flooding that followed. On Sunday afternoon, Aug. 28, the friars set up camp in the teacher's lounge on the second floor of the brick school building a few hundred yards from their church. Using past hurricane drills as their guide, they took with them a sleeping bag, a folding chair and a small supply of food and water. By evening the electricity was gone, and about 25 neighbors (only a few were parishioners) had joined them at the school.

Veering to the east of its projected route, Hurricane Katrina roared ashore at dawn on Aug. 29 as a strong Category 4 storm near Buras, La. New Orleans experienced blinding rains and tree-bending winds that lifted away a section of the roof of the seemingly impregnable Louisiana Superdome, where 10,000 people had taken refuge. When the storm howled away, it seemed the worst was over. But the fragile levees protecting the city had been breached. Sandwiched between Lake Ponchartrain and the Mississippi River, the friars' neighborhood was one of the first to flood.

'It looked like an ocean'

Monday, the friars awoke to find themselves on what was rapidly becoming an island. Water was pouring into the streets, seeping into the school, burying cars and sweeping houses from their foundations. "It looked like an ocean out there, with big waves," says Tony. At that point, says Luis, "People started moving from the first floor of the school building to the second floor." It was then that they realized, "We didn't have enough supplies." Obviously, somebody had to take charge. "I certainly didn't want to be that person," says Bart, "but they looked upon me as the pastor," so he soon became the authority figure for this disparate flock, many of whom were children.

As word spread that most o£ the school was dry, dozens more neighbors fled their homes, arriving by boat. "One lady was on oxygen," says Bart. "A number of people had heart trouble and diabetes" and lacked medications. With no electricity for recharging, cell phones were useless. Some listened eagerly to battery-powered radios; others huddled around a portable TV that couldn't get a video signal but gave them the network news. "We knew we had to conserve our food," says Bart. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sectioned for rationing, went a long way. A family with a propane cooker set up a kitchen on the roof and made gumbo for a crowd. Knowing that water was in short supply, they all feared the worst. At one, point, Tony says, "I was thinking of dying of thirst-"

A couple of women raided a school supply closet, stapling together pieces of 81/z-by-11 paper to form the words, "FOOD AND WATER." Laid out on the roof of the school, the makeshift distress signal became their best hope for an airborne rescue. Some enterprising children snared a bundled pile of 2-by-4's washed away from a nearby housing project, and Bart and maintenance man Al Savoy used it to float to the friary in search of anything that could be consumed. "I was shocked to see how much water had gotten into the house," says Bart, probably at least 7 feet. The kitchen was blocked, but they did find a small stash of bottled water on. the second floor. Back at the school that night, Bart went from classroom to classroom, leading people in prayer. "We prayed that the Lord would take care of us," he says. After that, "There was a sense of peace."

'Are we going to have a riot?'

Wednesday, "We got worried," Luis says. "The water supply was going down. The food supply was questionable." The radio reported that rescue efforts were halted after helicopters had been fired upon. Bart remembers thinking, "Oh

God, are we going to have a riot?" The odor in the building-they used buckets of water from the janitor's "slop sink" to flush toilets--grew increasingly foul. An elderly neighbor so weak he could barely eat when he arrived at the school had quietly passed away, says Bart, and "the decision we had to make was to put his body in black bags and put it out the front door," along with their prayers.

In the midst of their anxiety came the most welcome sound in the world: the whup-whup-whup of an approaching helicopter. Drawn by the sight of the chopper, dozens more survivors made their way through the water to the school and climbed the stairs to the rooftop. Lowering a basket, rescue workers began the joyous and tedious task of plucking them off, one by one. At the urging of the others, elder friar Tony left Wednesday evening. "They took us to a part of the city that wasn't flooded," he says. "That waiting for the bus was something­people pushing and pulling, waiting for hours and hours" to board a bus for Texas. (Tony left the bus in Baton Rouge and was picked up by Juniper Crouch from Lafayette.) On Thursday, satisfied the rest would be rescued, Luis and Bart agreed to leave the school. A chopper took them to a Houston-bound bus that was diverted to LaPorte, Texas, when news came that the Astrodome was full. They were met by Page Polk, chaplain at the Texas Medical Center. "All we had with us was what we had on," says Luis.

The friars hope to return to St. Mary of the Angels, where Bart has been pastor since 1993. After this disaster, "People will need the school more than ever," he says. Luis sees this as an opportunity that St. Francis would welcome, "an opportunity to begin again." Bart brushes aside any suggestion that he and his brothers are heroes. "We didn't do anything extraordinary," he says. "We just did what any other friars would have done. We helped each other. We made it through."

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