Redemption From Pain
10 Years after Hurricane Katrina
In New Orleans, many people are not fond of calling August 29th the “anniversary” of Hurricane Katrina, as though it were something to be celebrated.
But 2015 marks 10 years since the hurricane tore through their city, causing immeasurable devastation and heartache, and raising untold anguished questions. Even today, and especially in the poorer neighborhoods, more than 10,000 homes bear witness to Katrina’s wrath, meaning that more than 10,000 families are still awaiting recovery.
Yet New Orleans’ pain has not been without some redemption. EFCA Crisis Response was birthed out of that tragedy. And from lessons learned there, the growing Crisis Response team has spent the ensuing 10 years responding to other devastating hurricanes worldwide, as well as to earthquakes, droughts, tornadoes, fires, floods, tsunamis and nuclear disasters. (See “From NOLA to the World.")
In the storm’s eye
It all began with a tropical storm on August 24, 2005, headed for the panhandle of Florida. Picking up momentum, the storm graduated to a Category 2 hurricane and shifted toward Louisiana. Voluntary evacuations were recommended but many people stayed, assuming this would be just another nuisance storm. More than one-third of those living in New Orleans’ poorer neighborhoods likely had no vehicles,1 making complete evacuation impossible.
A plea from the Ninth Ward (here and above). Photo: Laura-Jean Watson
Pastor John Gerhardt, of Castle Rock Community Church (EFCA), was one of those who took action—using church vans to evacuate 70 church members and their families. His caravan headed first to Jackson, Mississippi, and then to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where they took sanctuary at Village Bible Church (EFCA). All they could do was watch the news in horror.
Back in Louisiana, the water on either side of the Industrial Canal rose as Hurricane Katrina came barreling onto the coast of New Orleans. Within a day, more than 80 percent of New Orleans was underwater (over 10 feet in depth in some places). Many lost everything—materially, in terms of home and possessions; relationally, as families and friends were displaced all over the country; and emotionally, as everything they knew as normal was turned upside down. Some traveled back to their homes six months later, others took six years. Still others have never returned.
It has been said that Hurricane Katrina revealed New Orleans “dirty little secrets”: systemic injustice, racial inequities and generational poverty. Many of the poorest neighborhoods were those most affected by the storm. Even after government resources were attained, unscrupulous contractors routinely took advantage of residents. Other families with limited resources and with aging, sickly and displaced relatives had to ask almost-unanswerable questions: Do we use our funds to care for our family members or to rebuild our home?
Hurricane Katrina’s winds and water cracked open the city, exposing the poverty, the discrimination and the gaping physical needs. Ten years later, families are still facing those needs, on top of the hurricane damage.
Yet there is hope, even amid the wreckage.
Random storm destruction in one neighborhood, still unrepaired in 2007. Photo: Laura-Jean Watson
Engaging physical and spiritual needs
Before the hurricane, despite the area’s deep Catholic roots, most New Orleans residents would not even engage in a spiritual conversation. EFCA church planter Bobby Tinner points out that New Orleans was—and in many ways still is—a bohemian city, meaning “do whatya wanna,” he says, and “God is left out of the process.”
At its launch, the Crisis Response ministry sought to shift that spiritual perspective by focusing on intentional disciplemaking in addition to physical rebuilding. Volunteer teams from EFCA churches around the country poured into New Orleans—helping to gut and rebuild homes, yes, but also standing beside homeowners as they wept over their losses.
Use Twitter, Facebook or Instagram to share your Katrina volunteer stories and photos using #efcakatrina, or send them via email. See what others are sharing too. And explore the interactive timeline about how the New Orleans response developed.
These sustained outreach efforts and the continued relational presence has helped darkness begin to lift off hearts and opened doors for spiritual conversations.
Crisis Response teamed with the homeowner and others to build this home in Central City New Orleans in June 2007. Photo: Laura-Jean Watson
Nearby Trinity Church—an EFCA congregation 40 miles north of New Orleans across Lake Pontchartrain—became “command central” for the EFCA recovery ministry, which immediately adopted the mantra: It’s about the people; not the project.
“I don’t know how many homes we’ve worked on, but I do know how many families we’ve connected with,” says Crisis Response director Mark Lewis. In fact, his team has kept a spreadsheet of ministry contacts and families who have been served, which now surpasses 5,000 (with another 300-plus on a waiting list).
The most significant training regularly given to volunteer teams is the most simple: Pray. Pray before you leave the church. Pray at the worksite with the homeowner before you start work. Pray when things come up in conversation. Take a prayer walk daily to connect with more people in the community. Pray before you leave the worksite.
And prayer has yielded longed-for spiritual fruit, including individuals coming to faith and others walking more closely with Jesus. The Crisis Response team has also helped launch several church plants in the New Orleans metro region, in partnership with local Evangelical Free Churches and the EFCA’s Southeast District.
Teams from Jesus Childrens Fellowship in Philadelphia and Hershey (Pa.) EFC worked together to help paint a homeowner’s house in August 2007. Photo: Laura-Jean Watson
Fundamentally, Crisis Response has four focuses when it comes to discipleship, both in New Orleans and in its work worldwide:
- restoration of the local church body;
- outreach, evangelism, disciplemaking and church planting in the affected community;
- life transformation in the lives of volunteers serving; and
- transformation in the volunteers’ own communities.
In other words, there’s a ripple effect in ministry, according to Mark Lewis. “When people come to volunteer, we believe God called them here for transformation in their lives,” he says—a transformation that continues when they return home and disciple others.
Ten years after Katrina, life has not yet returned to normal. Yet part of the new “normal” is a heightened sense of God at work, in a multitude of ways, through His Church—bringing redemption from the pain.