Almost seven months after Hurricane Katrina, what is the situation in New Orleans?
I recently toured the worst hit part of Orleans parish. There is no one living in the neighborhood. If you drive from the lake to the river, which is to the north, it’s almost like going through an area that had once been a thriving community and then became a reservoir and the reservoir was drained. You get the feeling you’re passing through ancient ruins.
When the city government was first getting itself back together, some of the state representatives pleaded with the mayor to let people back in so they could see what happened to their homes and have closure. Well, that sounded good to me. But when people saw their homes they began screaming at one another. They couldn’t deal with that issue in isolation; other hurts and frustrations that had been suffered, that they’d been experiencing from spouses or in-laws began to come out.
A psychiatrist I know wrote a book, before the storm, on the hurricane as a psychic phenomenon. He said as far as he is concerned, everyone from Biloxi, Miss., to the western reaches of New Orleans is suffering from post-traumatic stress, and everyone in Baton Rouge is suffering survivor’s guilt. That’s an exaggeration, but you have to understand something like that to be able to deal with the people here. When people start to deal with issues surrounding the rebuilding of their homes—trees fallen on the house, or the house totally destroyed—they’re handling it, they’re coping, but they’re not the same. They fly off the handle more easily. They frequently find it difficult to deal with one another.
How has the hurricane affected the Catholic Church?
Fifty-two churches have been put out of business, including the Jesuit church downtown. Some parishes had dwindling populations before the storm. It’s not clear how many people are coming back. I think the archbishop is going to unveil a plan as to what parishes will be reopened. [Ed.: One will close; 23 will reopen after some delay.] I’m sure some pastors will retire, because it’s just too much to go back in and rebuild at their age.
There are some parishes open, predominately in Jefferson parish, Orleans parish, St. Bernard—the parishes on the high ground. I look out my window and I see Holy Name School, which has been open for about two months now. The kids are out there playing, and it looks perfectly normal. But you go to other parts of town and there are buildings sitting there with nothing happening.
Has the Catholic Church or any other denomination had a significant role so far in the rebuilding?
I’d say the most visible thing the Catholic Church has done so far is to reopen its own schools and openly challenge the public schools to follow suit. They certainly took the lead there.
But the church got hit so hard that it was not in a position to take the lead in a lot of things. The archbishop is on the mayor’s rebuilding committee, as are the college presidents, including the president of Loyola.
I don’t think there has been any unified, highly visible activity by Protestants and Catholics, black and white. But there have been ecumenical services in the cathedral and in some of the black Protestant parishes. And some of the Baptist sects have really distinguished themselves by being right there in the shelters and helping people rebuild in different ways.
What issues need to be addressed immediately?
The main issue, by everybody’s reckoning, is the rebuilding of the levees. It’s typical here that people say we’ve ripped everything out of the house except the studs and the roof, and we’re going to start over again as soon as we know what’s going to happen to the levees. At this point, the only work being done is to bring the levees back to a condition such that, if we have another Katrina, we will do a little better than we did this time. There is no long-term plan for how the levees will be strengthened and what’s going to be done to the wetlands to mitigate storm surges. If your business got wiped out by the flood or your home was destroyed, do you want to come back to the same place and risk having it happen again in a year or two before you even finish rebuilding? That’s a big question in the minds of many, many people.
Another major issue is whether we should restore the city as it was, or whether some of the lower-lying areas should be plowed under and turned into green space. Everyone predicts a smaller population. It would make a lot of sense to have more green space. But one of the things about New Orleans people is they have a fierce love of where they are from, their neighborhood. People say I’m from Bywater, I’m from Mid-City or Lakeview, and they really feel that’s part of their identity. They think they are going to come back to the neighborhood they left. They’re not considering the fact that many of their neighbors are never coming back, and that some of the services may not be available.
We also need to get the rest of the state and the rest of the nation to see that we are still in real trouble. We need the nation to be aware that this is not over. About a month ago, Rush Limbaugh told his audience that they don’t have to worry about New Orleans: the French quarter is open, and the mayor and the governor want to postpone elections because they want the Democrats to come back (Democrat, of course, is his codeword for black). These people are not helping us.
How are things at Loyola University?
We were saying at one point we’d have 85 percent of our students back. Spring semester always has a drop of about 5 percent, so that sounded pretty good. Then as we got closer the numbers looked more like 90 percent. Now it’s the drop/add period, and we’re just trying to sift through. People might be bouncing around; some people come back late. The spirit is wonderful. People are really happy to see each other.
How has your experience these last months affected your faith?
The first five weeks after Katrina, I was doing weddings and retreats all over the country, and the one thing that I kept repeating was from C. S. Lewis: God did not make us to be happy, he made us to love. We saw so much of that. I’ve heard dozens of stories of people being taken in. I heard of one couple who evacuated across the bridges when the storm was just about to hit, but nobody was on the road, so they were able to get as far as Memphis without any obstacles. They spent a night in a motel and met a couple in the parking lot from somewhere near there in Mississippi. The couple didn’t know them at all, but took them in and kept them as long as necessary. That story has been repeated over and over again. People are suffering, but learning to love through suffering.
In October, I bumped into a friend while I was riding my bicycle out in Audubon Park. He said, Why don’t you come to our house and say Mass for the neighborhood? His house is right on the edge of the park.
Everybody from the neighborhood came. I knew most of the people there, but I didn’t realize that some of them were Jewish, some of them were Protestant. They wanted to have that sense of community. They were there because they were neighbors and they wanted to share with one another and they wanted it to do it in God’s presence.
When you think about it, if your main goal is to be happy, you’re going to be miserable; but if your main goal is to love, you’re going to be happy.
For more information on the current situation in New Orleans, visit www.nola.com . For information on political efforts to strengthen the levees and rebuild the city, visit citizensfor1greaterneworleans.com.