NEW ORLEANS, La. Church leaders here speak with gentle words and a patience that indicate both caring and understanding.
Emotions are near the surface and hope is fragile in this diminished city with its nearly a quarter of a million buildings, once flooded with toxic, stagnant water, but now standing empty. Nearly a year has passed since Hurricane Katrina and the swollen waters of adjacent Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico breached levees and poured salty waters into the three-feet-below sea level bowl that seats much of this city. In the meantime, most of those for whom this was once home are rebuilding lives elsewhere.
Homes that were in the flood's currents are in shambles awaiting front-end loaders to haul them away. Homes engulfed but structurally sound await being stripped to the studs, or have been gutted and await the decision of their owners. Some 10-15 percent have been thus prepared and a like number have FEMA trailers parked on their brushy lawns. Complicating matters, a significant number of homes were vacant in blighted areas before the storm.
A malaise temporarily envelopes the streets, neighborhoods and entire communities of stricken homes. Homeowners face such questions as: Will the levees hold against the next big storm? Will flood insurance be available? What financial assistance will FEMA provide? Will financial support come in time to do any good? When will businesses re-open?
The FEMA money may come in massive amounts after this hurricane season, or maybe not. No one really knows for sure. Only time will answer these questions and, until they are answered, most people are reluctant to invest money into the area.
Yet hope springs eternal. Distinct signs of progress blossom as investors buy up land and plan new subdivisions and apartments. Here and there, a home has been refurbished and is occupied: those owners appear to be happy people.
Since the storm, the city's population has recovered to nearly 220,000 from its pre-Katrina level of around half a million. But the recovery is slow and spotty. To the south and east, the hard-hit areas of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes lost about 60,000 residents. Residents of surrounding areas also left, among them Church members. Subsequently, the New Orleans 1st Ward, the Chalmette Ward, the Pontchartrain Ward and the Uptown Branch were combined to create the Jefferson Ward and the small New Orleans 1st Branch. This branch includes the areas where the apocalyptic tragedy occurred the 17th Street and London Avenue canal levee breaks, the gulf storm surge in St. Bernard, the huge industrial canal breaks in the Ninth Ward (a political division) all the places where water was the deepest. In these areas, the Academy and Chalmette meetinghouses were razed.
"It will be a slow recovery," predicted President Scott N. Conlin of the New Orleans stake.
Because "people heal at different rates," the stake is moving carefully with a "sense of doing right" which "allows people to be healing at the same time this work is progressing forward."
"We all agree that none of us would like to have Katrina come again, but we are also near the point where we can truthfully say that not any of us would want to trade these lessons in life."
To strengthen the stake, two units were added from the Baton Rouge stake, the Thibodaux Ward and LaRose Branch, which puts the stake's membership about at pre-Katrina levels. Leaders hope for the saints to come marching back, but "our first goal is to strengthen families, then we can rebuild units," said President Conlin.
Homes and businesses in the adjacent Slidell stake are mostly repaired, said President Terrence M. Donahue, a building contractor who has left his house as the last one to be fixed. Those stake members still living in FEMA trailers are dwindling in number, he said.
"The thing that concerned me most was the ones who didn't want to let anyone know how bad off they were," he said.
After the flood came a second inundation. Latter-day Saints and many other volunteers helped clean homes in Slidell and New Orleans. The volunteers and humanitarian donations in Slidell raised the Church's profile, said President Donahue.
Characteristically, priesthood leaders in both stakes directed volunteers to all the urgent situations that needed help except their own. In one instance, a priesthood leader who had directed volunteers elsewhere for weeks at the expense of his own, finally in desperate need asked for help. But the crew had been directed to another site. Discussion ensued as a ward member intervened in behalf of the selfless priesthood leader. The crew reverted back to help him, but he was not to be found. So the ward member went looking. He walked to a shed at the back of the property. There he saw the priesthood leader on his knees, and heard him praying aloud. He heard the leader pray for help but petitioned, "If there is someone who needs them more, please send them there."
"I am standing there trying not to cry," said the ward member.
When the LDS crews completed their efforts, the additional sets of tools were donated to the St. Bernard Parish, said Pat Phillips, stake public affairs director. Her former husband, Vincent Phillips, though not a member, worked hard for the Church in locating appropriate areas for humanitarian donations. The shovels, rakes, wheelbarrows, gloves, axes, sledge hammers, crowbars, along with a trailer load of water and school kits, were distributed by the parish to other volunteer groups. Bucket cleaning kits are given to homeowners, and the school kits to children of the parish.
"The children like them better than candy," said Melvin Phillips, who loans out tools to volunteer groups. (He is not related to Pat, and isn't a member of the Church). "The Church did a super job here."
On the west bank of the Mississippi, the Port Sulphur Branch was devastated as Katrina first made landfall over this exposed area at the river's mouth. However, because of the way the waters were driven, the surrounding west bank experienced mostly wind-inflicted damage. Port Sulphur, West Bank 1st, and Algiers branches have been combined into the West Bank 1st Branch, with about 110 attending.
The Spanish-speaking unit is now the New Orleans 2nd Ward, which fared better than most. Being linguistically separated, its members traveled together, stayed together, and "had a Zion experience," said President Conlin.
Still, said Bishop Hector Garcia, "We have tremendous challenges to cope with." People looking for work continue to show up lacking housing, lacking employment, and lacking documentation.
"If you had called me I would have told you not to come," he tells those people who show up. Lack of housing is the most difficult challenge. Families are living in cramped quarters; the entire, close-knit ward is alerted to report an available apartment.
While the city projects its growth to reach 300,000 next year, President Conlin is doubtful. "Our members have gone to places like Houston and
Dallas, Texas, and Jackson, Miss. They are doing better economically. They have new friendships. I wouldn't predict they would be back; they will settle down and be home."
Uniting those who are here is a challenge as well. On July 29, New Orleans 1st Branch members celebrated what they called "Southern Pioneer Day." This was the anniversary of the day the Mississippi saints entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
"We had a great time," said Gove Allen, first counselor in the branch presidency. "We barbecued a couple of briskets, trying to do as much of normal life as possible. At the same time, we are trying to integrate the survivors of three units into one."
President David Van Dam of the 1st Branch said it is difficult for some former members to return.
"Some can't deal emotionally with that devastation. What happens, happens. We do our part and the Lord does His part. I know there are people in and out of the Church who lost everything, and who are choosing not to return because they just can't deal with that emotional trauma again. I can understand that it is not easy to come back in and rebuild homes and rebuild lives."
And there are those "who had homes destroyed who spent more time helping others than worrying about their own homes. It has been a blessing to watch them."
President Van Dam and his mother-in-law had their homes destroyed. His son, Daniel, left for the Mexico Guadalajara Mission just before Katrina struck. He chose to remain in the mission field and "I know we were blessed because of that," he said. Another son, Brian, 14, until a recent convert baptism, comprised the entire complement of youth in the branch. At a fifth Sunday combined meeting July 29, Brother Allen, conducting, said: "Where is the youth of the branch? We expected the youth to be in this meeting. Oh, there he is on the back row. Sorry, Brian. I didn't see you."
Mac Williams, second counselor in the branch presidency, said only two families in his previous ward were not flooded. Now he and others seek out less-active members to entreat them to join the branch. Some do, but the storm has given all a fresh start.
Among the former members of the Chalmette Ward is Julie Attaway, a Primary teacher who sought refuge in the meetinghouse during the storm. She was trapped on the second floor for 10 days. Now she and her relative, Linda Roberts, a Relief Society instructor, are in Benton, Ark. (See Church News, Sept 17, 2005). As with many evacuees, she suffered from post-storm health problems cancer, in her case, and a successful surgery. She remembered those events as though it were yesterday: "I didn't think I was going to survive," she said in a telephone interview.
The ordeal "was a test I had to go through," she said. "I sang the hymn, 'The Iron Rod,' and I knew I was going to get safely home."
"I was breathing shallow and hallucinating I thought the couch was a swan. When they came to rescue me I couldn't open my mouth to speak."
She was hospitalized where she slept for two days. After she was released, people in the River Center shelter in Baton Rouge threw a birthday party for her and helped her get clothing from the American Red Cross.
Although one of her family members has post-traumatic stress syndrome and screams when the wind blows hard in the trees, Sister Attaway and Sister Roberts "read the scriptures every day and fast often. (We pray for) the Lord to have mercy on us."
"The people in the ward are as nice as they can be, but we want to be closer to where our family is," said Sister Attaway.
Melvin Coleman of the New Orleans 3rd (YSA) Branch was never separated from his family after the storm. On Aug. 28, following priesthood counsel, he awakened his family and they evacuated to a nearby shelter, then were bused to a shelter in Lake Charles, La., where they remained week after week. "That was a horrible, bad place," he said. "They treated us like animals. It was like being in prison. Every crime that was committed they blamed on the people from New Orleans. It made me feel bad I have feelings, too."
Then Hurricane Rita struck Lake Charles and the evacuees were bused to a youth camp. At the youth camp, they were treated better but "it was still a struggle. You forgive stuff, but you never forget."
Katrina, he said, helped reveal the true side of New Orleans with so many people living in poverty. "Now we have a chance to have a clean slate," he said. "I feel good about the future."
President Conlin said Hurricane Katrina accelerated change in people's lives, some for the better, some for the worse. "How quickly people changed directions in their lives."
The disaster, with all its ramifications, "makes you ponder on how the Lord will prepare the world and His saints for His Second Coming," he said.
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