Published April 15, 2005
Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans thanked American Catholics for their “outpouring of love and concern” for the church in New Orleans and neighboring dioceses following Hurricane Katrina.
“Dioceses, parishes, lay organizations, corporations, individuals and even young schoolchildren have generously contributed thousands of hours of volunteer time and funds in excess of $12 million to rebuild our parishes and schools,” he said in a letter released Dec. 6.
Among programs he cited was Operation Helping Hands, through which 2,400 people, many from other parts of the country, have volunteered to help restore the homes of the poor and elderly.
Hurricane Katrina hit the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast Aug. 29. The region suffered extensive damage from wind and storm surges, but in the city of New Orleans the situation was complicated by the breach of three levees. Almost the entire city was flooded, making it practically uninhabitable for about two months.
In early November, most of the city’s wards were sufficiently cleaned up to be reopened to residents, but many still lacked basic services, especially electricity.
Calling the hurricane “the greatest natural disaster ever experienced in the United States,” Archbishop Hughes said the generous Catholic response to it “has been extraordinary and humbling.”
“The need continues to be great and the future holds unprecedented challenges for all of us,” he said.
“It is projected, by year’s end, the archdiocese will face a multimillion dollar deficit with still much damage to our property to contend with,” he said.
The archbishop said the archdiocese has made “some great strides in re-establishing our pastoral and ministerial presence” in the three months since the hurricane.
He said more than 120 parishes in other parts of the country have “twinned” with local parishes or schools to help them rebuild.
Nearly 100 of the archdiocese’s 142 parishes and missions are celebrating Mass at least weekly, he said, and 66 Catholic schools have reopened and are serving 37,000 students.
He said Catholic Charities has restored a wide range of residential programs and services for clients in need and is distributing $200,000 a week in direct humanitarian aid.
The archdiocesan food bank “is now the largest food bank in the country, having distributed over 30 million pounds of food” in the past three months, he said.
Post-hurricane rebuilding—not just of buildings, but of congregations and the entire network of pastoral services—was the main topic of discussion at a Nov. 29 meeting in Lafayette of the bishops of Louisiana and the officers of priests’ councils of the state’s seven dioceses.
Father Harold Trahan, Lafayette priests’ council chairman, said the meeting focused on issues such as ministerial outreach to the displaced and reorganizing parishes in areas where people have not returned.
“The church is not the building—it is the people,” Father Trahan said. “Wherever the people are, that is where we want to be.”
Assessments of actual damage, replacement cost and cleanup in the New Orleans Archdiocese were still being made. But a preliminary report on church-owned properties suffering wind or flood damage estimated that flooding was responsible for $84 million in damage, about $70 million more than the archdiocese carried insurance coverage for.
One difficult area the archdiocese will face is the repair and rebuilding of churches. Federal Emergency Management Agency funds may be available to repair or rebuild schools, rectories and social service facilities, but not churches. Donors have given Catholic Charities USA more than $100 million for hurricane relief, but that money is designated for charitable and humanitarian assistance, not church repair or construction.
In November the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Home Missions announced that the five dioceses most affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita—the New Orleans Archdiocese and the dioceses of Biloxi, Miss., Houma-Thibodaux and Lake Charles, La., and Beaumont, Texas—would receive $3 million in grants from the committee’s reserves.
Members of the home missions committee decided that post-hurricane pastoral conditions in New Orleans qualify it as a mission diocese under funding guidelines, at least for the short term. The other four dioceses already were considered mission areas. The committee received approval from the bishops’ Administrative Committee in September to give the grants.
Groups that want to volunteer with Operation Helping Hands should contact Denise Chetta by phone at: (225) 336-8700, ext. 422, or by e-mail at: email@example.com. Those wanting to make a contribution to the New Orleans Archdiocese should contact Peter Quirk by phone at: (225) 279-4921, or by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org; or they may follow instructions online at: www.archdiocese-no.org.