What we learned from Hurricane Katrina

It is very, very hard to watch images coming out of Houston in the wake of Harvey. Katrina left deep scars. When I see an image of my hometown under water, I can look past the damage and heart ache. And what I see is the church there about to experience its finest hour. 

Twelve years after the levees broke and New Orleans went under water, images and conversations still race through my head.

The day I remember most, however, came several months after the landfall and devastation.

Our tiny Broadmoor neighbourhood church managed to acquire a very used double-wide trailer. Deposited in the middle of our parking lot, it would serve as a makeshift church, community center, and relief site (for years).

As a gaggle of hardy New Orleanians managed to return “home,” we embarked on what appeared to be a fools’ errand of trying to save our neighbourhood from being demolished by city planners. With 100% of all homes and buildings in our community destroyed or severely damaged, our little church offered up the double-wide as home base for our civic association.

One Saturday morning, we asked all returning residents to meet up near the church from where we would canvass the neighbourhood, assessing the damage and leaving messages for our neigbhours. Afterward, we hosted a lunch cobbled together from relief supplies for the resident volunteers.

As neighbours and new friends left the trailer after lunch, I heard two statements over and over again; these still ring in my ears. After hugging my neck, over and over they said to me on the way out of the parking lot, “Thank you for doing this. Today was the first time I could sit on a chair, at a table, and just talk with people who understood what happened to me.” Followed by, “I never knew what this building (the old flooded church) was. I never knew what people did here.”

I was to stunned to learn the depth of irrelevance to which our 163-year-old parish had sunk. Although I had only been installed as Rector (pastor) a few weeks before Katrina hit, I knew that things would have to change. Quickly.

Flash forward five years and our neighbourhood was mostly repaired and rebuilt. It was far better than before on many levels. The parish worked hand in glove with the local civic association to bring residents home, helping to rebuild their lives. It was the church’s finest hour. We experienced resurrection.

The transformation was so profound, and so improbable that the Harvard Kennedy School of Government studied us for five years. The academic question being: How did one of the poorest communities in New Orleans (median household income $10,000) experience a 93% return of its residents?

While our Harvard colleagues had no idea of the power of prayer or the Holy Spirit or the promises of God, they did conclude that the church played a significant, vital role in our community’s comeback. There was “something” about the church that made it both “different” and highly effective in disaster events.

It is very, very hard for me to watch images coming out of Houston (my hometown where my sister and parents still live) in the wake of Harvey. Katrina left deep scars. However, when I see an image of my hometown under water, I can look past the damage and heart ache. And what I see is the church there about to experience its finest hour.

Here is what we learned in Katrina and how Christ followers in south Texas can shine Jesus’ light for all to see:

1. Sharing water, food, shelter, etc. is not enough for people in crisis. They need to know the love and faithfulness of God. We refused to accept relief supplies from a particular denominational provider because we were not allowed to use the Name “Jesus.”

2. With Jesus front and centre, while relief is happening, pray with people. Share words of love, comfort and hope from Scripture. People are not merely physically broken but spiritually and emotionally hurting. Jesus is their healer. Tend to their hearts not just their bodies and buildings.

3. Rumour Phase: Do NOT believe everything you hear from the media. Wild rumours are a normal part the crisis. Remember all the people who were supposedly killed in the New Orleans’ Superdome? I can see this already starting in Houston. You can help by not spreading false stories on social media or by email.

4. This is a marathon, not a sprint. An initial crush of “volunteers” will inevitably race in to help. There will need to be a thoughtful evolution of capacity building taking time to put into place. Churches will need to think about housing volunteers in the days and even years ahead. There must be platforms for launching relief operations and recovery initiatives. Note, too, that crises attract pedophiles and “fake” clergy. Ill- intentioned people know there will be vulnerable children in a chaotic environment upon whmo they might prey. Vet your volunteers. And don’t be offended if you are vetted.

While almost all are well-intended, the majority of dear people arriving on the scene in the early days caused more harm than good. We weren’t ready for people to come and stay with us; some needed rescuing themselves or became a tremendous burden on us. If you or your church wish to enter the disaster zone and help, coordinate this with locals. Find out how you can be of greatest help, not becoming one more issue causing stress.

5. Listen! Don’t presume what people need. This is why almost all large charitable organisations failed miserably. These groups were too large to truly hear from the grassroots and adapt as needed. Needs will change as the crisis cycle moves from relief to recovery and then resolution. Our slogan was, “Be fluid, not flexible, because flexible is too rigid.” Be ready to turn on a dime; people and communities recover at different paces. Denominations especially felt the pull towards centralised response with predictably terrible results.

6. Help and recovery as a community. It was proven in Katrina that “victims” who went out and helped others in need recovered at a faster rate. The people who stayed inside and looked inward did not do well in the long-term. Get people involved in your relief and recovery ministries. The only way you will endure – and hopefully thrive – is by committing to one another. Stand together and fight, leaving no one behind.

7. Relief and recovery are best directed at the lowest level. The church should already be engaged with the lives of the community (we had to make up for generations of disengagement very quickly). The church can be a voice for their needs, hopes, and dreams for recovery. Highly centralised operations failed miserably. We learned the key to effective help is for outsiders to look for grassroots, boots on the ground locals, and support them. Think bottom up, not top down.

8. Embed deeply with your local community. Sacrifice to the bone. Our little church was asked to give up its campus for five years to host the local civic association’s relief and recovery operation while providing housing for 3,500 volunteers annually. This meant, essentially, giving up our campus and beautiful old church. Jesus gave everything. There is nothing He held back on the cross. Why shouldn’t we give all, to the point of profound pain, not just “inconvenience?” Idols must die. Giving up our wants and comforts goes to the heart of following Jesus.

9. Churches that simply tried to put things back the way they were ultimately died out. 60 percent of all churches in New Orleans didn’t make it in in the long run. Their focus was “getting back to the old normal.” That is a guaranteed recipe for failure. Work within the community to envision a “new normal.” What would the church look like in the new normal, truly engaged with residents, meeting their deepest felt needs (remembering a relationship with God in Jesus is everyone’s greatest need)?

There is much more to say. But the day is early. The recovery process will take years. While the road ahead looks daunting, it can be your finest hour as a Christ follower and as His Bride, the Church.

With all blessings and Hope in Him,

The Very Rev. Canon J.A. (Jerry) Kramer

If you would like to see how it all began in New Orleans, you can watch me paddle into the city here less than one week after the levees broke. If you go this page, you will see many short videos on Katrina relief and recovery from a Church-based perspective.

For more resources from the Harvard Kennedy School on neighborhood recovery, see:

You can help the relief effort for Hurricane Harvey by donating through the Anglican Relief and Development Fund here.

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