From a Southern Province OP, passed on to me by a reader. Astonishing how quickly things transpired:
Please forgive not sending each of you a personal e-mail, but I just don't have the time right now. I know a lot of you have expressed concern about my safety and the situation here in New Orleans. Well, I want to share with you a very abbreviated synopsis of the past few days.
Originally the national hurricane service plotted Hurricane Katrina as heading to the Florida pan handle. Since that area of the country has been hit by so many hurricanes in the past 1-14 months we were all concerned and prayed for the safety of the residence and vacationers there. the forecast was revised and the new coordinates for Katrina indicated that it was coming to New Orleans.
On Sunday morning the new coordinates were confirmed and those who had not already left the city either were leaving New Orleans or considering the possibility. Many decided upon leaving and by midday almost all of the St. Dominic's community decided to head north to Memphis, Ponchatoula, or Hammond. The Provincial (Marty) and I decided that we would stay in the city since St. Dominic's is a solid three story building and we were confident that we would be safe. We also thought that it would be good for someone to remain in the house.
Approximately 2:00 a.m. on Monday morning we lost electricity and phone service and by 4:15 a.m. the sound of very loud winds became constant. There is a protected stairwell in the Priory which is solid brick, steel, and mortar with no windows and we decided that this would be the best place for us to sit out the storm. The sounds of the winds increase and we would take occasional peaks through the stairwell door to check on how things were holding up. Remarkably things seemed to be holding up well. Soon after, however, we began to hear the sound of windows crashing and glass breaking. In an inspection run we could see shingles from the roof of the church flying through the air like missiles. It was confirmed in our minds that under the force of such winds shingles and roof tiles could be very deadly.
By midday there were still strong winds and constant rain, but the winds seemed to have calmed a little -- no longer were they 135 mph or more. They, were however, capable of sustaining hurricane force winds. Moreover, we were able to keep informed of what was happening in the city via our small battery powered portable radios.
On one inspection tour around midday we walked over into the church where we could detect some water in small puddles. Getting closer to the sanctuary area we saw that one window high in the narthex was blown in and water was streaming through it in the area of the baptistry. Looking across from this window we say its counterpart on the other side of the church sucked out with the rains encouraged to cover as much an area as possible because of the air stream created by the two broken windows. Again while the water in the church was minimal in this area it was more pronounced.
We returned to the priory to continue our inspection and found that some water continued to seep in on the ground floor but it was not overwhelming. In a return trip to the church we were very aware that the water level was now ankle deep and this just within a short time span of some 10-15 minutes, and also the water level in the priory was beginning to rise. I would not put this in the category of becoming alarmed but certainly there was some great concern.
Sometime in the middle of all this we became aware of two people on the roof of the school. They were considerably higher than us and were trying to get the attention of the helicopters that were flying over the area. (Some of you would know Sarah Todd, daughter of Timmy and Pam) who was one of these two who had taken refuge in the school along with another friend who was a singer in our music group. We kept being aware of each other.
Now the water was rising at an alarming rate. Harrison Avenue which fronts the priory and the church was growing from stream to river and its current was picking up speed. From the small platform off our kitchen (2nd floor) we could see the water level rising where all the cars were parked and began to either see or hear, or both, the death knells of the autos as the water grew and began to consume them. A family of a mom and dad with two young children made a canoe trip to the parking area and we promised to try to keep contact with all -- this family, the two on the roof of the school and anyone else we might come across.
By now the street had become a raging river, the first floor of the house was under some 8-10 feet of water, the church was flooded. However, the rising water seemed to have tapered off and was only growing in increments of inches.
A rescue boat filled with people came having been made aware that there were some people at St. Dominic's through the helicopter personnel attracted by Sarah and Paul on the roof of the school. Since the boat could not receive any more people the pilot said that he would take his boatload to safety and return to get us. The boat returned, piloted by a volunteer from Memphis and rescued Sarah and Paul from the room of the school -- they went down the second floor and escaped through a window and came to pick up Marty and me. There was one passenger in the boat from the neighborhood. I
t was only then that we could begin to understand the devastation surrounding us. The trip to dry land ( raised portion of interstate 10) was entirely by boat down Canal Blvd through the submerged portion of interstate 10 to dry roadway. It was unbelievable! The only way of navigating the area was by boat and ever single story house was submerged up to the roof. In many ways it was too much to take in. It was overwhelming and you just could not grasp the full reality of what you were seeing.
We were settled in a van and brought a short way to a gathering spot to be place on buses. For this short trip I shared a seat with a young guy and his pit bull. While waiting to board buses for a shelter in Thibodaux, Louisiana we stood and watched as helicopter with the sick landed just next to us where the sick were unloaded and placed in an ambulance and brought to East Jefferson Hospital. Soon it became time to board the buses for the approximately two hour trip to Thibodaux.
We arrived at Nichols State University and were processed and admitted in the Shaver gym. In all there were some 400-500 people being housed there. There was no electricity but there were people glad to be on solid ground. Each found an area on the floor and we prepared to stay the night (or many nights for a lot of people). The place was staffed with volunteers who could not have been nicer. The portable radios which we had listened to while in the protect stairwell at the priory kept us abreast with what was happening -- stories of peoples stranded on roof tops, areas of deep concern, places and people needing help, rescue operations that were underway, etc.
Around 8:00 p.m. a restaurant from Breaux Bridge came with a full supply of Jambalaya and this was followed by another restaurant which shipped in gallons of ice cream. But the most wonderful provision was some ice to cool the water which had been out in the heat for so very long that once mixed with ice was like the nectar of the gods.
It was a very different experience to be on the receiving end of things and not on the giving part. It was both humbling and provocative of deep gratitude. Living in a shelter has a marvelous way of equalizing everyone and everything and reminding you that, indeed, the whole human family is composed of brothers and sisters. It was long night with little sleep and certainly provided a new experience which I shall never forget.
The following morning, once the new light was up, and after what seemed like hours Marty and I went to the Newman Center on campus and through a young student make contact with the priest who runs the center. By the way the Newman Center took in all the refugees who had come with animals since the university would not. I couldn't help but notice the toy terrier who was presiding at things from the celebrant's chair. Through contact with him we were able to contact Sarah's uncle Fr. Will Todd and able to make arrangements for Sarah, Paul, and Harry (the fifth passenger on our rescue boat) to join with Fr. Todd and reach some accommodations. Fr. Jim Morrison (not of the band the Doors) helped Marty and me to get passage to Lafayette where I hoped and prayed that Msgr. Doug Courville would be home.
The good news is that Doug was home and has given us refuge in his rectory. You know, a nice warm shower must be one of God's greatest inventions! It was also here in Lafayette that we saw the first newspaper articles and photographs of a ravished New Orleans and were exposed to the overwhelming shots of the city's devastation on the television.
No one knows when anyone will be able to return to New Orleans much less what, if anything, there is to return to. So I will be here in Lafayette for a while to reflect, to pray and to give thanks. I am grateful for you concern and prayers and caring. While no one knows how long I shall be here you can be sure that here in the Capitol of Cajun Country both Marty and I have been received with outstanding hospitality.