Introduction
Exploring Religious Responses to the Katrina and Rita Disaster
Catherine Wessinger

THE EVENT

On Friday, August 26, 2005, students at Loyola University New Orleans were busy moving into their dormitories. Many of the students’ parents were in town helping them move, and a busy orientation weekend had been planned for the freshmen and their parents. New Orleans residents were aware that Katrina, a category 1 hurricane, had already hit southern Florida the day before and entered the Gulf of Mexico. There was no concern in New Orleans because it appeared that Katrina would stay close to Florida’s western coast as it moved north to Florida’s panhandle. When everyone in New Orleans woke up on Saturday morning, August 27, we learned that Katrina had strengthened to a category 4 hurricane with winds up to 145 m.p.h and was heading northwest to

land somewhere between Galveston, Texas, and Alabama. It appeared to be heading directly for New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It appeared very possible that this hurricane could be the dreaded direct hit that New Orleans residents had been warned about for years (CNN Reports 2005, 9). Mayor Ray Nagin appeared constantly on television strongly encouraging residents to evacuate. He did not order a mandatory evacuation at that time to permit residents of the Louisiana parishes (counties) closer to the coast— Plaquemines, the lower portion of Jefferson, and St. Bernard—to evacuate first. The Loyola students who had transportation, most likely with their parents, left town. The students who did not have immediate transportation were evacuated by Loyola personnel to a shelter set up at Istrouma Baptist Church in Baton Rouge.

I spent the day on Saturday preparing for two possibilities. I bought groceries to stock up my refrigerator (a mistake) in case Katrina turned east—as hurricanes approaching New Orleans had done so many times before—and there would be no need to evacuate. I also packed in preparation for evacuation while keeping an eye on the news. Like other New Orleans residents who evacuated for Katrina, I figured that I would be gone for three days at the most. Many of us had evacuated in 1998 for hurricane Georges and in 2004 for hurricane Ivan, both of which had turned east, sparing New Orleans. At least since I moved to New Orleans in the early 1980s, New Orleans residents had been warned that the worst case scenario would be a hurricane coming up the Mississippi River and dumping water from the river, Lake Borgne to the east, and Lake Pontchartrain to the north into the city, which lies below sea level.

My son and his friend left New Orleans at midnight to drive north to Tennessee where they sat out the storm. When it became obvious that they could not return to New Orleans, they drove to my son’s grandparents’ home in South Carolina. Ken Richards and I left our home in Gretna, Louisiana, in Jefferson Parish on the Westbank of the river at 4:00 a.m. on Sunday morning to avoid the congested highways. Driving the back roads to Baton Rouge to stay with friends, it took us only two and a half hours to get there.

On Sunday, August 28, Katrina was a category 5 hurricane, a thousand-mile-wide monster in the Gulf with winds up to 175 m.p.h. and a predicted storm surge of 28 feet (CNN Reports 2005, 9). At 10:00 a.m. Mayor Ray Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation order and opened shelters, including the Superdome, to New Orleans residents with no transportation out of the city. Evacuation from the city was expedited by the opening of the opposing lanes on the highways to contraflow beginning at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday. An estimated 500,000 vehicles transported about a million people out of the area. Katrina dropped back down to a category 4 hurricane as it approached the coast (CNN Reports 2005, 11; Gordon and Varney 2006, H-9; Varney 2006, H-10).

We learned later that when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and New Orleans it was in fact a category 3 hurricane. Katrina had winds of 127 m.p.h. at 6:10 a.m. on Monday, August 29, when it crossed the strip of land at Buras, Louisiana, at the mouth of the Mississippi river, completely flooding Plaquemines Parish. Katrina then headed north to come ashore at the mouth of the Pearl River at the Louisiana-Mississippi border with winds of 121 m.p.h (CNN 2005b). New Orleans would be devastated, but was fortunate that the eye of the storm was to the east. Experience had demonstrated to New Orleanians that the heaviest rainfall and winds are on the eastern side of a hurricane or tropical storm.

The eye of Katrina made landfall in Mississippi, and a storm surge up to 23 feet and winds up to 100 m.p.h. obliterated homes, buildings, and boats in Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, and Gulfport (CNN Reports 2005, 21, 120). Wind and water damage stretched at least from Baton Rouge to Alabama. From 4:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. levees in Orleans Parish (contiguous with the city limits) gave way in multiple places in a complex sequence of events, which over the next few days would leave 80 percent of the city under water ranging from a few inches to over ten feet deep. The flooding from Lake Pontchartrain stopped only when the water in the city equalized with the level of water in the lake on September 1 (see the New Orleans Times-Picayune maps on this website, specifically, “A Chronology of Destruction,” and “Flood Depths in New Orleans”).

People in New Orleans had to be rescued from their rooftops, the Superdome, and the Convention Center, where they were left for up to four, five, or six long hot days without food, water, toilet facilities, and medical care. Surviving residents on the Gulf Coast were left to fend for themselves for days. The world knows that federal assistance was very slow in coming to these areas.

People in New Orleans who could not get on their roofs drowned in their homes or in their attics. Others died on the flooded streets. Vulnerable patients died in sweltering hospitals, which were under siege by people outside shooting guns.

By May 19, 2006, the number of Louisiana dead, including those who died after evacuation, was up to 1,577 (see the New Orleans Times-Picayune map on this site named “Katrina Victims: Where They Were Found”) and bodies were continuing to be located, with 237 people listed as missing (DeBerry 2006, B-7). The death toll in Mississippi was 236 with 67 people missing. 65,380 houses in south Mississippi were destroyed (“Mississippi’s Invisible Coast” 2005); 90 percent of the buildings between the beach and the railroad tracks were destroyed in Pass Christian, Long Beach, Gulfport, and Biloxi (CNN Reports 2005, 38).

One of the most dramatic sights of the damage was one side of the I-10 twin-span bridge between New Orleans and Slidell, Louisiana, separated into broken bits.

Evacuated residents of Jefferson Parish were permitted to return to their homes one week later to “look and leave.” We inspected our homes, repaired what we could, cleaned out our refrigerators, got extra clothes and supplies before returning to the places where we had found refuge. Many homes in Jefferson Parish on the Eastbank, in the towns of Metairie and Kenner, had flooded because the parish administration had evacuated the pump personnel before Katrina’s landfall and there was no one present to turn on the pumps. Many homes in Jefferson and Orleans Parishes suffered water damage due to the destruction of their roofs. After two more weeks, Jefferson Parish residents were permitted to return, if their homes were habitable.

Neighborhoods in Orleans Parish remained off limits to residents for another month or more (“Hobbled City” 2005), while the water was pumped out of the areas that flooded and city services were gradually restored. National Guard units prevented unauthorized personnel from entering Orleans Parish. The Orleans Parish neighborhoods that were not flooded were the ones on the higher ground along the Mississippi River: parts of Carrollton, Uptown, the Garden District, the Central Business District (CBD), the French Quarter, the Faubourg Marigny, and Bywater, and all of Algiers on the Westbank. The neighborhoods of Lakeview, City Park, Gentilly, New Orleans East, and across the Industrial Canal, the neighborhoods of Holy Cross and the Lower Ninth Ward, got the worst flooding with the water reaching eight to ten feet in some areas. There was also significant flooding in the more central areas of the city with the water ranging from a few inches to eight feet. To the east of New Orleans, Chalmette, Arabi, and other towns in St. Bernard Parish suffered flooding that reached over ten feet in the worst-hit areas (see “Flood Depths Map in New Orleans” on this website).

Parts of the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish got three to four feet of flooding again on September 23-24, 2005, through levees that had not yet been fully repaired as hurricane Rita made landfall in southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas (CNN 2005a; Connolly and Grunwald 2005; see the photo on the front page of this website). Those of us in the unflooded areas of Jefferson Parish were able to sit out Rita in our homes.

THE ORAL HISTORY PROJECT

The university students displaced from New Orleans were generously welcomed by other universities across the nation for the Fall 2005 semester that the city was closed. Loyola University New Orleans reopened for classes on January 9, 2006, and welcomed 92 percent of its students back for the first Spring 2006 semester. A second Spring 2006 semester was offered from May through July to make up for the missed Fall semester.

The students and faculty had returned to an obviously battered city. Many faculty and staff were living in lodgings located quickly after their homes were destroyed, or they were repairing damaged homes while living in them. Some faculty and staff and some students were living in FEMA trailers. All who had experienced damage or loss of their homes were dealing with insurance adjusters, contractors, and all the concerns related to gutting a flooded house and deciding what to do with it.

The environment around Loyola looked relatively normal if a student stayed in the Uptown area where the university is located, except for the several stop lights that were still not working and the absence of the streetcars on St. Charles Avenue. But one did not have to venture far to see homes that were dusty and moldy from the receded floodwaters, or the charred remains of some houses that had burned down. The water line was visible on many buildings and trees indicating exactly how high the flood reached. Many students volunteered to help gut houses that had flooded and to work on other service projects sponsored by Loyola.

In Spring I 2006 I taught two sections of Honors World Religions and one section of Religions of Asia. The courses had their own content, certainly, but we could not tune out the disaster we had just experienced and in which we were living. Therefore, I made an oral history assignment in which the Honors students would write their term papers on the religious responses to Katrina and Rita in a chosen congregation. One student in Religions of Asia elected to carry out a similar assignment for his term paper, choosing to research religious responses to Katrina at a mosque in Metairie.

The assignment was to visit the congregation several times and ascertain the effects of Katrina, and possibly Rita, on the congregation and the congregation’s collective responses to the disaster. Many houses of worship were wiped out or damaged to varying degrees. Almost all the congregations, even those whose buildings had suffered severe damage, were providing social services to the wider community. As part of the assignment, the student was to interview at least three people including one of the leaders of the congregation. As these students make final revisions to their papers, they will be posted on this website. Their audiotapes and transcripts will be placed in Loyola University’s Katrina archive.

A graduate student is researching three congregations during Summer 2006 as an independent study project. This Katrina and Rita oral history project will continue in a course I will offer in Spring 2007.

Ultimately, the reports on this website will cover congregations from Chauvin, Louisiana, west of New Orleans, where the encroaching Gulf waters will one day compel the residents to move from their beloved town, to Gulfport, Mississippi, east of New Orleans, where the eye of Katrina hit the coast. Given the location of the university, the majority of the reports focus on congregations in the New Orleans metropolitan area. The reports on this website do not attempt to address the situation in southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas, which bore the brunt of Rita.

CONCLUSIONS

The students’ reports demonstrate that people interpret their experiences of disaster through the lens of their particular religious worldview. For instance the Hare Krishnas tended to downplay events in the material world, even while coping with the disaster, and stressed that ultimate importance resided in being aligned with the spiritual world so that one could go to God (Krishna) at death (Goodrich 2006). The Seventh-day Adventists, with their emphasis on the New Testament book of Revelation and belief in coming apocalyptic events, interpreted the disaster as a sign of the imminent Second Coming of Christ, while they rebuilt their church and tended to the needs of the congregation’s members; they maintained their Adventist stance of not getting very involved in “the world” and its politics (Parchim 2006). Members of the Lotus Lake Drikung Dharma Center, a Buddhist group oriented toward Tibetan (Vajrayana) Buddhism, regarded the experience as a major lesson in impermanence and their evacuation time as an opportunity to practice flexibility and non-grasping (Hoover 2006). Many people in Muslim, Jewish, and Christian congregations, including the nondenominational, evangelical Celebration Church in Metairie (Fienman 2006), got involved in providing social services of various types. Many of these congregations served as distribution centers for aid, and hosted volunteers from out-of-town congregations who came to gut and repair houses and build new ones. The members of these New Orleans congregations eschewed an interpretation that the disaster was an expression of God’s wrath, and instead saw it as a call from God to help others, even while they were rebuilding their houses of worship and helping their congregation’s members. Very few of the people interviewed saw the disaster as punishment from God, suggesting that such an interpretation makes the most sense to persons who at that particular time were spared the adverse effects of a disaster. A sense of shared community within the congregations and their connection to New Orleans and its rebirth were important to everyone interviewed.

Some congregations have had their places of worship so damaged that they have been provided temporary places to gather by other congregations. When Beth Israel, an Orthodox Jewish congregation, lost its synagogue to the flood, Gates of Prayer, a Reform Jewish congregation in Metairie, provided Beth Israel members a place to meet even while Gates of Prayer was repairing flood damage to its own building (Buras 2006). Other congregations, due to the reduced number of members, have combined their services, members, and resources, at least for a time. Community Church Unitarian Universalist and First Unitarian Universalist Church, both of which experienced severe flooding, began holding joint services on Sundays at the Jefferson Presbyterian Church (Thomas 2006; Samms 2006). The loss of members due to the reduction of the population in New Orleans may compel some congregations to merge eventually.

I now know from firsthand experience that people who have experienced disasters find it important to reestablish their customs and revive their traditional celebrations. In New Orleans in 2006 we experienced this with our first post-Katrina Mardi Gras in February and the return of the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April-May. We also celebrated New Orleans food, music, and art during the French Quarter Festival in April. For the members of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral located in a flooded neighborhood on Bayou St. John close to Lake Pontchartrain, it was important to repair their church and Hellenic Cultural Center quickly, not only to reestablish a sense of normalcy, but to welcome Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople when he visited on January 8, 2006, and to be able to hold the annual Greek Festival on the Memorial Day weekend in May (Hoffman 2006; Macom 2006). The 2006 Greek Festival with its Greek music, dancing, food and drink, was indeed a joyous celebration of an important component of New Orleans culture.

A new religious tradition was added to New Orleans culture on Memorial Day, May 29, 2006, when former and current residents gathered in the Lower Ninth Ward and in Lakeview to remember the Katrina dead and pray for the strength of the repaired levees (Filosa 2006, B-1). No doubt August 29, 2006, will mark a major religious commemoration of those who died due to Katrina. New Orleans will remember its dead in the cultural expressions unique to this city. I recall that early on Mardi Gras morning as we were driving on I-10 I saw several Mardi Gras Indians—African American men dressed in their hand-sewn costumes decorated with sequins and brightly colored feathers—performing a ritual on an I-10 ramp next to the Superdome. New Orleans police officers shielded them from traffic on that part of the highway, so they could dance and sing to remember the dead and bless the city.

FUTURE RESEARCH

This oral history project will continue for a little longer to increase the diversity of the congregations researched and to document further the religious responses to the disaster caused by Katrina and Rita in the south Louisiana-New Orleans-Mississippi Gulf Coast areas.
The students report that they benefit in one or more several possible ways from this assignment, which requires them to move beyond their personal comfort zones: by putting their own losses and suffering in perspective when compared to the losses and suffering of others; by exploring in-depth the responses to the disaster in their own religious communities; or by gaining first-hand experiences of people in religious communities other than their own and appreciating their shared humanity. The students have met a number of inspiring individuals in the course of their research, and they have benefited from the empathy cultivated by entering into the religious and social worlds of others. It is a privilege to learn so much from the students. Enjoy exploring their reports. I also recommend examining the very helpful maps compiled by Brad Petitfils for this site.

Catherine Wessinger
Professor of History of Religions
Loyola University New Orleans

May 30, 2006


WORKS CITED

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Buras, Justice. 2006. “Gates of Prayer Congregation’s Response to Katrina.” Term paper for Honors World Religions, Loyola University New Orleans.

Caldwell, Deborah. N.d. “Did God Send the Hurricane?” Beliefnet. <http://www.beliefnet.com/story/173/story_17395_1.html>. Accessed 29 May 2006.

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CNN. 2005b. “Katrina Was Category 3, not 4.” CNN.com. 21 December. <http://www.cnn.com/2005/WEATHER/12/21/katrina/index.html>.

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Connolly, Ceci, and Michael Grunwald. 2005. “New Surge Spills over Repaired Levees: Rita’s First Effects Fill Drained Streets.” Washington Post. 24 September. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/23/AR2005092301437.html>.

Crowe, David. N.d. “Katrina: God’s Judgment on America.” Reprinted on Beliefnet, <http://www.beliefnet.com/story/174/story_17439_1.html>, from Restore America, <http://restoreamerica.org/>. Accessed 29 May 2006.

DeBerry, Jarvis. 2006. “City of the Dead: We’re Still Finding Katrina’s Victims Even as a New Hurricane Season Looms.” New Orleans Times-Picayune. 28 May: B-7.

Fienman, Rose. 2006. “Full Speed Ahead: Celebration Church’s Response to Disaster.” Term paper for Honors World Religions, Loyola University New Orleans.

Filosa, Gwen. 2006. “A Separate Grief: Memorial Day Takes on New Meaning: Remembering the Victims of Hurricane Katrina.” New Orleans Times-Picayune. 30 May: B-1.

Goodrich, Andrew. 2006. “The ISKCON Response to Hurricane Katrina.” Term paper for Honors World Religions, Loyola University New Orleans.

Gordon, Meghan, and James Varney. 2006. “Katrina Evacuation Plan Remains the Model: Officials Say Area Emptied Efficiently.” New Orleans Times-Picayune. 28 May: H-9.

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Hoffman, Jonathan. 2006. “The Response to Hurricane Katrina by the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral, New Orleans, Louisiana.” Term paper for Honors World Religions, Loyola University New Orleans.

Hoover, Rob. 2006. “Lotus Lake Drikung Dharma Center.” Term paper for Honors World Religions, Loyola University New Orleans.

Kaylor, Brian. 2005. “Fundamentalists View Hurricane Katrina as God’s Punishment.” Ethicsdaily.com. 9 September.

Macom, Tom. 2006. “Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral.” Term paper for Honors World Religions, Loyola University New Orleans.

“Mississippi’s Invisible Coast.” 2005. SunHerald.com. 14 December. <http://www.sunherald.com/mld/sunherald/13402585.htm>.

Parchim, Nicholas. 2006. “The Seventh-day Adventists: Diverse People, One Faith.” Term paper for Honors World Religions, Loyola University New Orleans.

Samms, Wesley. 2006. “First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans.” Term paper for Honors World Religions, Loyola University New Orleans.

Thomas, Laura. 2006. “An Active Response in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina: Community Church Unitarian Universalist.” Term paper for Honors World Religions, Loyola University New Orleans.

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Varney, James. 2006. “Contraflow Evacuation a Hurricane Triumph.” New Orleans Times-Picayune, 28 May: H-10.