By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published August 24, 2006
A year ago, then 80-year-old Father Royce Mitchell walked in pitch-black darkness along I-610 for some three miles with thousands of others, carrying an overnight bag, praying and striving to support others while enduring a stifling sense of dread about the future.
During the interstate exodus in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with everyone from babies to the elderly, from those with disabilities to those with diabetes, the native-Atlanta priest ate one granola bar from the box he had packed and gave five away—along with the rest of his food—to those around him in the crowd of nearly 5,000. Somehow he remained mentally “pretty good”—considering the circumstances.
“I tried to keep in contact with and help anyone that I could,” he said in a recent interview. “Everyone was having to encourage people. We were walking about three miles in total darkness. I was thinking about everything and praying and wondering how in the world we would get out of this. The lack of communication was the worst thing. We didn’t know what was going to happen to us. The city was in total shock, fearful but supportive. … It was the fear of the unknown, survival of the fittest.”
Nearly a year later, Father Mitchell reflected upon the disaster and his efforts to rebuild his own life and help others rebuild theirs in a interview July 26 in his tidy one-bedroom apartment at the Chateau of Notre Dame, a New Orleans senior continuing care community, where he moved following the storm and now serves as chaplain.
He recalled his first return to his looted home in the Gentilly neighborhood, which had soaked in nine feet of water for nearly five weeks from breaks in the London and 17th Street levees, and his quiet discovery in his flooded study of his New Testament with not a single water stain.
“My other Bible, books, and everything else were destroyed. It had no water stain whatsoever, no sign it had been in the water. How it survived no one knows—just a sort of miracle. It lifts up your faith and is a sign of hope,” he said. “Even with what we went through, the suffering and destruction, there are still signs of hope, and our faith is not diminished. We came out and are better spiritually than we were, not financially but spiritually. And we enjoy more things in life than we would have in the past. Life is more valuable.”
Another small sign was a tarnished metal cross that he found untouched atop his flooded bed in Gentilly, where he rented a home while serving for 11 years at St. Francis Cabrini Parish, along with several other parishes.
With an unhurried and calming way of speaking, he also pulled from a cabinet a gleaming chalice given to him from the parish he attended growing up, Sacred Heart Church in Atlanta, and a silver pitcher that he salvaged from the house. He lost nearly everything else—clothes, books, furniture, all his family and ordination pictures and certificates, his Navy discharge papers. He, of course, already knew that things are just things, but like thousands of others he experienced a most painful lesson in detachment.
“What you have doesn’t really mean anything. Your faith and life and people around you are the most important thing,” he said.
He eventually evacuated to the Atlanta area, where a brother lives in Stone Mountain and a sister in Carrollton. But he moved back to Louisiana by October.
“It is a shock when I came down to realize when you return and walk into the house everything is destroyed, things are out on the street, total houses devastated, neighborhoods devastated, furniture collapsed, nothing is intact. And walking into the bedroom there is total chaos, everything is destroyed, but there is the bed totally made up with everything as you left it on the Sunday afternoon, being underwater for five weeks, with water, mud, oil and grease,” he said.
The World War II Navy veteran with a deep voice and gentle spirit acknowledged that this natural disaster was more distressing than it was as an 18-year-old sailor to be attacked by a Nazi submarine in the north Atlantic.
“This was more traumatic,” said the priest. “Everything is jerked out from under you, and you end up as a homeless person and don’t know what the future will hold.”
He recounted how he stayed in town as Katrina approached, to celebrate a Saturday funeral Mass. On Sunday he celebrated Mass and secured the church around 11 a.m. Packing an overnight bag with a battery-powered radio, he moved to a safer, empty rectory at St. Leo the Great Parish on higher ground about 18 blocks away, where he had weathered storms in the past. Rain poured and heavy winds blew that night, and the electricity went off at 5 a.m. Monday the storm abated in the afternoon. “If the levees had not been broken, we would have been OK. There was no water in the streets Monday night after the storm. … I figured I’d be around to help in case anyone needed anything.”
He planned to return home until he looked out Tuesday morning and saw flooded streets. Growing concerned as the water rose in the streets and houses on lower ground and crept toward the top steps of the rectory, he heard on his radio about the seriousness of the levee breaks and flooding. By Wednesday at 3 p.m. two volunteers rode by in a boat as he stood on the porch. “I waved at them and hollered for them. They asked me if I wanted to be picked up. I said ‘yes!’” They later returned, and he waded through the water to get into the boat and was dropped off with others at an exit ramp off I-610.
“We rode around trying to get people off balconies who said they wanted to stay,” he remembered. “It was a great relief to be able to be picked up and get out of that situation,” he said, expressing gratitude for the good Samaritans, “people coming in to New Orleans, these nice people even sometimes not knowing what the situation would be … even risking their own lives.”
Bused to an I-10 overpass, the group was told they’d be picked up to go to the Superdome. But at about 9 p.m. police came and directed them to backtrack and walk three miles to the Elysian Fields Avenue exit off I-610.
One tragic memory was trying to pacify a confused elderly man who appeared to have dementia. Father Mitchell gave him the peanut butter, saltine crackers, and raisin bread that he’d packed in his bag. “I tried to talk to him and encourage him.” But he eventually got separated from the man, who started walking in the other direction, and believes that he walked into the water and drowned. The priest lamented the sight of dead bodies floating off the exits of the expressway. One person near him died while waiting to be picked up.
“We knew the important thing was survival and to take care of the living instead of trying to focus on the ones who had not made it,” he recalled. Upon reaching the exit, “we stayed through the night without food, water, bathroom facilities. They started picking us up around noon.”
They boarded a bus Thursday that stopped at a rest stop near Baton Rouge, where they ate their first meal of beans, rice, fried chicken and bread, and they later ended up at a Red Cross shelter in Huntsville, Texas, by 3 a.m. Friday morning. A cousin who lives in Wimberly, Texas, picked him up there, and he eventually moved on to Atlanta to stay with his brother.
Despite the hardships, he is deeply grateful for all the kindness he was shown throughout his evacuation. “Kindness was everywhere. People would come up and say, ‘Can I get you anything?’ That was beautiful. People wanted to help you.”
Father Mitchell grew up on Myrtle Street in Atlanta and was ordained on March 30, 1974, at the age of 49, for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, where he attended Notre Dame Seminary. He had graduated from the University of Georgia with a business degree and earned a master’s in labor relations and economics from the University of Tennessee, but feeling unfulfilled in his job and very involved in ministry at Sacred Heart, he began his discernment. New Orleans was accepting older vocations and, encouraged by the late Father John Mulroy, he felt that Louisiana would be a good place to start anew.
In addition to various New Orleans parish assignments, he has also served as chaplain at Notre Dame Seminary. At the Chateau he celebrates daily Mass, leads the evening rosary and offers spiritual direction. He noted that about 35 of the current 60 residents in the independent living section were there prior to the storm.
The Chateau, which had about three feet of water on the ground floor and mold damage on the upper floors, began reopening by March and is gradually taking in more residents.
As he and others recover, he stressed the importance of “looking forward to the future and not looking back with the things that have happened to us here.”
Loved ones encouraged him to stay in Georgia, but the 81-year-old, with faith and Bible intact, felt called back to Louisiana.
“I’m retired and I’m still active, and I’ll stay as long as I physically can. That’s the reason I came back. My family asked me why I came back, and I said I’m obligated. That’s where I’m needed.” he said. “I’m happy with what I’m doing, satisfied I can be back and can be of help and service. This is where I belong.”