Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Heartfelt Treasures Came From Katrina Experience

By PETER FINNEY JR., Commentary | Published September 2, 2010

My family and I spent Katrina in an enclosed corridor leading to the stairwell of my fourth-floor office, a decision that with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight ranks somewhere on the top 10 list of “Mistakes I Have Made in My Brief Sojourn on Earth.”

There’s a line describing a person who turns an easy job into something difficult as “someone who could make a freight train take a dirt road.”

Our office is right across the street from the Union Passenger Terminal on Loyola Avenue, and believe me, the freight train that Monday, Aug. 29, at 3 a.m. careened across the asphalt and headed straight up the stairs like some Monster Zephyr at Pontchartrain Beach.

Would the building stop swaying?

Would the building stop talking?

Why—why—had I brought my family up here to die? Just to save a few hours in contraflow?

I still have difficult dreams about that morning. I remember listening to WWL radio, our information lifeline. Truly, the WWL reporters forever will remain heroes in my eyes because they honored their vocation and risked their lives to save others.

I became alternately worried and angry when I heard WWL speak to every civil parish president, even Benny Rouselle of Plaquemines Parish, where Katrina officially made landfall. As the hours ticked on and the windows of my office continued to crash in, I wondered, “Where was (New Orleans Mayor) Ray Nagin?”

I knew the WWL studios were just across the street from City Hall, but no Nagin could mean only one thing: Something must be seriously wrong in the city of New Orleans.

In a few days, from the safety of a dear friend’s home in Baton Rouge, we discovered just how seriously wrong things had gone.

And now, we are here, perched on the precipice of a five-year anniversary of a life-changing event that everyone wants to forget. My emotions are a jumble of snapshots burned into memory:

– Driving into the city a week after the storm, I was overwhelmed by the deafening silence. New Orleans was Antarctica at the equator. It was a brown and lifeless and God-forsaken tundra: no birds, no bugs, no life. One of the images taken by Clarion Herald photographer Frank J. Methe crystallizes what I was feeling that day: a small white crucifix floated out of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Violet and came to rest half-buried in the cracked mud. This was Calvary, horizontal and below sea level. But that crucifix also symbolized the promise of the empty tomb—and new life.

– When the roller coaster of my daily emotions swayed wildly from hope to despair, Methe’s stunning picture of the large crucifix above the altar at Immaculate Conception Church in Marrero reminded me of the meaning of redemptive suffering. Katrina’s winds had blown off the right arm of the corpus, and a shard of stained glass, traveling at warp speed, became a spear that buried itself in the left side of the crucified Christ. The brown shard remains in the restored crucifix as a symbol of Katrina. It speaks this to me: Though we were pierced and suffered so many deaths, big and small, through faith we grasped the promise of Resurrection and wouldn’t let go.

– Methe’s picture of a college group from the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, in their overalls, pausing from their gutting of a house to receive ashes from their spiritual director, Father Ed Brienz, on Ash Wednesday in 2006 is chilling. How many thousands of God’s foot soldiers, like these from Ohio, helped us rise from our ash heap? Thanks be to God.

– Finally, for me the image of God’s faithfulness is manifested in the story of the second collection for Katrina relief taken up on Sept. 18, 2005, by St. Lawrence of Brindisi Parish in the Watts section of Los Angeles. The working-class parish’s average weekly collection was $5,000, but on this day, it raised $7,000 for the Katrina collection alone. That money was earmarked for St. Gabriel the Archangel Church in New Orleans.

But the real treasure was buried inside one of the collection envelopes. On the outside of an envelope, written in Spanish, were these words: “Para las victimas del huracan, no traia dinero pero esto debe de tener algun valor. Es de todo corazon.” (“For the victims of the hurricane. I did not bring any money. But this should be of some value. It is with all of my heart.”)

It was a woman’s plain gold wedding ring.

Methe’s picture of Msgr. Doug Doussan, the pastor of St. Gabriel the Archangel, holding the ring, sends the message of Christ’s hope.

Said Franciscan Father Peter Banks, pastor of the small Watts parish: “It is very humbling to realize I am living among the poorest of the poor, but they are the wealthiest in so many ways.”

And they have enriched our lives.

Peter Finney Jr. is the editor and general manager of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.