In September of 2005 my wife Claudia and I took a week-long trip to New Orleans with a group of about 20 people from Mariner's Church in Irvine to help where we could with the Hurricane Katrina Relief effort. Our church has partnered with a local church (Celebration Church) in Metairie, Louisiana, a middle class area right next to New Orleans. This is a rather long letter, so if you don't want to or don't have time to read the whole thing, please scroll to the bottom, where my thoughts on the entire experience are summarized (starting with “Every night of our trip…”).
I trust that you will find at least portions of this narrative enlightening as to some of the current conditions in the New Orleans area following hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Celebration Church had two locations – one of which had been under about 8 feet of water for over 10 days and the other location where we stayed and worked which had been flooded with “only” a few feet of water for several days. Our location was dry when we arrived, although it had sustained water, drywall, flooring, and roof damage plus, of course, mold. The general game plan for our time there was to help with the food and supply distribution center the church had set up and to possibly deliver food and supplies to people in their homes when they couldn't get out.
We left Irvine early Wednesday morning September 21 st and arrived in New Orleans that evening. We went straight to Celebration Church, met some of the other volunteers, and got the first view of our accommodations. The volunteers showed us around the food distribution center (the store) and the gym where they were sorting all the clothes to be given away. The volunteers (from Rock Harbor Church in Costa Mesa ) seemed to know everything that was going on and gave us great guidance on what needed to be done, even though they had only been there one day themselves. We found that it didn't take long to become an expert! Our accommodations, which were on the second floor of a church/school building, consisted of a room for the men and a room for the women with block walls, stained carpet, and a musty odor everywhere. “Dank” would perhaps be a good descriptive word for our sleeping area. We slept on air mattresses that we brought ourselves. The bathrooms were downstairs on the first floor. We could shower in the water, but could not drink it or brush our teeth with it. It was definitely not the Ritz Carlton…or even Motel 6.
Thursday morning, we started working right after breakfast, about 8:30. Some of our team helped in the kitchen, some worked in the food distribution center, and my wife and I worked in the gym, sorting clothes. With no AC, 95 degree heat, and 90% humidity, we began sorting through boxes of donated clothes. The other part of our task was to help people who came in to the center to find the clothes or shoes they needed. It was very humbling to help people who suddenly had nothing find a pair of shoes to wear while they cleaned water and mud out of their home… or to sift through stacks of baby clothes on pallets on the floor so that we could find something for their children to wear. We had been told to take time to listen to their stories because it helps them to talk about it. Most of the people we met that day had lost everything, could not go back to their homes yet, and were living together with 3 or 4 other families in a house that was still livable.
About 3:00 p.m. on Thursday, we were told we had to evacuate immediately to avoid Hurricane Rita. It wasn't heading toward New Orleans, but the concern was that it could cause enough rain to further damage the levees and there could be more flooding, so we headed back to Baton Rouge. Once we got there, we were sent to another distribution center/evacuee shelter set up for Katrina victims. It was a huge warehouse-type facility where we moved and sorted supplies for them to distribute. When these centers receive donated goods, they often come with many different items grouped together, so sorting is an ongoing and necessary task before the supplies can be given away. That night, we were told we would be staying in a shelter. This was not news we wanted to hear and we were definitely apprehensive about it, having heard all the stories about shelters on the news. It turned out that we stayed inside a very nice, clean, air conditioned church on cots with the other volunteers we met the night before, who also had to evacuate New Orleans . (The church had an evacuee shelter next door, but we did not have to stay there.)
On Friday, our plan was to unload an 18-wheeler truck filled with medical supplies. Long story short, the truck driver went to the wrong place and we had some down time. But it was a great opportunity to get to know our fellow volunteers, most of whom we had not met until about one week before. We had a variety of careers represented – attorneys, nurses, accountants, insurance and business men, computer experts, a counselor, policeman, sign manufacturer – all taking time out to help. During this time, we started hearing all the news reports about Hurricane Rita. We called some friends and family to let them know we were fine and away from New Orleans . But we also found out that our own families in Beaumont , Houston and South Louisiana were evacuating because the storm was turning their way. (All are OK, by the way, but with some property damage.) The wind started picking up and the rain got really heavy as the truck arrived at the storage facility. In about 2 hours, we managed to unload the entire truck without a forklift or any equipment other than 20 sets of hands and aching backs. We found out later that if we had not been there, a doctor, her husband and young son would have had to unload it themselves as they had planned. We even recruited the truck driver to help us unload and he posed for a picture with us when we were all done.
One of the women on our team was from Baton Rouge . Earlier in the day, she spoke with her friend who owns a large home with a guest house who offered to let us ALL stay there for the night. We slept together in her dance studio and she cooked gumbo for us for dinner and her very sweet mother even baked us cakes. We spent the evening of Hurricane Rita in the lap of luxury (at least as much as it could be when shared with 20 people in one room), watching the storm from their back porch. We slept through the night and didn't even hear the wind.
After a home cooked breakfast on Saturday morning, we traveled back to New Orleans . The power was still out most of the day and their pressing need was for us to get their church building ready for a service Sunday morning. This may sound to some like a less important thing than the desperate physical needs we saw earlier, but there had been no church services since Katrina, many people had not seen each other since the storm and it was a big emotional accomplishment for the community to get this important part of people's lives back on track. There will be no way to adequately describe what we did that day, but I will try. We moved all the water-logged, moldy pews out of the church, which took several hours. (It took 10 people to carry each one out.) We wiped down every wood surface with a bleach solution to counteract the mold. We swept and mopped the floor, which was concrete and rough with glue and dirt since the carpet had been pulled up after the standing water had been removed. We cleaned what was left of the bathrooms. We set up over 400 chairs. We helped bleach the surfaces in the nursery. We picked up debris from the wind and rain outside. This would have been a pretty tough day anyway, but since there was no power, there was no AC and the temperature was close to 100 (with unbelievable humidity). It was our most grueling day.
A sad thing we discovered when we returned on Saturday after Hurricane Rita was that the roof on the gym where we had worked on the first hot day in Metairie had leaked, there was water on the entire floor and all the clothes we sorted and all the clothes we hadn't gotten to yet had been thrown away because they were wet and would soon be moldy. The sadder thing was watching people picking through the boxes of discarded clothes outside because they needed whatever they could find.
On Sunday, we slept a little later (7:30), had breakfast and went to church. When we walked into the building, we were all overcome with emotion. There were so many people, so happy to see each other, music was playing, the AC was on, people were hugging… I don't think we will ever forget that moment. Knowing what most of these people had been through, losing their homes, most of their possessions, being separated from other family members or having to share homes with several other families, and then to see their joy at being together as a church who cared so much for each other – it was touching beyond what words can convey. There wasn't a dry eye in our team. The other thing we all noticed at this time (as well as at other times when we met with people) is that these people are just like us. They had homes, families, jobs, and a wonderful church family. If this kind of devastation happened in our lives, wouldn't we appreciate having strangers come in to help us?
Sunday afternoon was “free time”. We drove over to view one of the levees that broke during Katrina, the beautiful brick homes that literally had holes through them and the water still in the street nearby after almost four weeks. We saw boats on the side of the road (from when the streets were flooded) and almost every house had huge piles of debris (carpet, drywall, lumber, furniture) in the front yard. We went to the location of the other Celebration Church property and again were struck that these people were just like us. Their church, which now had black patches of mold growing up every wall, had beautiful wood paneled doors, a marble entry, a huge sanctuary with high ceilings, a coffee house – so very much like our own Mariner's Church. At this point, each car went in separate directions. Some went to buy supplies at the just opened Target or K-Mart (with National Guard troops at the entry) and one group drove into New Orleans and met a lady in an upper class neighborhood who had lost everything. They saw her crying in her front yard and stopped to ask if there was anything they could do to help. She invited them in, felt badly that she could not offer them anything cold to drink, told them a little about her story and showed them her closet with fur coats that had mold growing from the bottom almost to the top. They helped her remove some of her clothes that might be salvageable from her upstairs closets and prayed with her. They promised to stay in touch and went back twice more to try to see her, but she was not there when they returned.
On Monday and Tuesday, several trucks of supplies arrived at the store, which the guys unloaded. Two nurses had set up a medical area where they supplied over the counter drugs and one member of our team worked tirelessly to get the church's computer system up and running. Most of us worked in the store both days – either unloading the trucks, stocking the shelves, sorting supplies, rearranging displays, greeting the customers, helping them find or load their supplies and praying with them as they exited. We knew we could not solve all their problems, but we were convinced that God could provide comfort to them in their time of need and distress. We also heard more stories of losing homes and jobs, of family members spread out in far away places and of gratitude for the help these people received from virtual strangers just trying to do what they could. The “store” did not have everything people needed, but in some cases, it had supplies people could not find at the few real stores that were open. It was set up like a store for a few reasons. One was for the dignity of the people “shopping” there. They could walk through and choose what they wanted, rather than just getting a miscellaneous box of groceries from a charity. Another reason was so that those in need could be ministered to and prayed for, if they were open to it. Almost everyone welcomed having one of our team pray for them as they left the store. Some of our repeat customers walked right up to the person praying for a hug and another prayer.
Some of our team went out in the afternoon to deliver food and supplies to the neediest neighborhoods. This was a priceless experience. Some of these people were living in homes without power (remember the temperature), with mold growing up the walls or without basic supplies like water. We brought them food, water, ice, bleach (a valued commodity), toiletries – whatever they needed. We also connected with these people, who maybe for the first time saw giving with no expectation of getting something in return, or of someone of one race truly giving help to someone of another race – just for the sake of giving.
On Wednesday, we packed up, worked for an hour or so and took off for our long journey home. We were able to greet the next team from Mariner's at the Baton Rouge Airport and arrived back in Irvine just after midnight.
Every night of our trip , we were asked “what did you see and what did you learn?” This is the summary part you may want to read if you didn't read the whole letter. Here is some of what we saw and what we learned.
We saw people who couldn't complete their sentence when trying to tell us how their family was doing without quietly breaking down with emotion.
We saw homes that had had 6-8 feet of water inside, huge piles of rubbish outside and that would take thousands of dollars to repair.
We saw people who had probably always been self sufficient look through piles of damp clothes to find something for their children to wear.
We saw volunteers (local and from far away) sweating and getting blisters trying to help others, with no agenda of their own.
We saw warm and friendly people (rich, poor and middle class) who were enormously grateful for a package of diapers, a few cans of soup or a bottle of bleach.
We saw a man with long hair and a beard (who looked a little like pictures of Jesus) who under any other circumstance I would think was probably a nut, offering comfort, food, compassion and love to people he didn't know, in 100 degree heat.
We saw a church full of people who love each other and God and who are willing to sacrifice what they have to help others. These people are looking for the good to come out of their tragedy and are holding on to their faith, no matter what their circumstance.
We saw a group of about 20 virtual strangers who worked together as a team, loving and watching out for each other, for the purpose of helping, encouraging and loving others who were also strangers.
Be thankful for everything you have.
Count your blessings every day.
Having possessions is not what is important in life.
It feels great to help someone other than yourself.
Working together with a team can be a life changing experience.
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Celebration Church in Metarie, LA