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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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'Not doing something is the worst thing ...'

Katrina survivor's words reveal haunting challenge

It’s as if time stopped Aug. 29, 2005. That’s the day the rage of Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, savagely undermining the levee built to safeguard New Orleans’ Lakeview community from the advances of Lake Ponchartrain.

Block after block of mangled homes, hundreds of them, sit just as they did after waters receded. Spray-painted messages on their dirty facades tell when search-and-rescue teams entered the skeletal dwellings looking for signs of life—or death. Dozens of yachts from two nearby marinas sit curiously askew on roadways and walls just the way Katrina left them. Some 60 days ago a tornado touched down on part of this community, further punctuating the devastation. Here and there crudely painted signs give vague promises that someday life will return to the largely deserted streets. Nobody seems to know how or when.

Mark Wester (left), a contractor and member of Grace Lutheran in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans, tells visitors about the congregation’s plan to rebuild the church, which he is directing.
“People sometimes think we weren’t prepared for a hurricane,” said James Wee, president of Grace Lutheran Church, Lakeview, and a biology professor at Loyola University in New Orleansa. “In fact, we worked very hard to be prepared. But it would have been difficult to be prepared for a storm of this magnitude. It overwhelmed us.”

He believes construction in the nearby community had been limited for some time, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency wasn’t as prepared for a disaster of this magnitude and the levees weren’t well-constructed. Many think floodwaters came over the top of the levees, Wee added, but the waters actually undermined the levees at the base.

Wee said he and his wife, Beth, a professor of neurosciences at Tulane University, New Orleans, have been blessed to recover some insurance damages from their Lakeview home, but they won’t return to live there. He said many others do hope to return.

A few signs of life are returning to Lakeview, and thousands of Lutheran, Episcopal and other church volunteers have flocked to make a difference, working out of recovery centers like the one Lutheran Disaster Response supports at Christus Victor Lutheran Church, Ocean Springs, Miss. In Lakeview, cranes rising against the blue spring sky are evidence that $9 billion worth of repairs are being made to the levees along the London Canal break.

About a mile away, members of Grace, assisted by at least a half dozen congregations including Trinity Lutheran Church, Lansdale, Pa., are repairing their church. (Trinity became acquainted with Grace’s story because parishioner Donna Whitney’s sister is a member of Grace.) Members of Grace completed mold cleanup in their flood-stricken building, gutted the damaged interior and started rebuilidng. Contractor Mark Wester, a leader in the congregation, is spearheading the effort. “When something is destroyed,” he said, “God may have a plan to make it better.”

Beth and Jim Wee arrive at neighborhood funeral home, which has been the temporary worship site for Grace Lutheran Church in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans. Says Jim Wee, congregation president: “It’s critically important for the church to be here for the people of Lakeview.”
“It’s critically important for the church to be here for the people of Lakeview,” Wee said. It’s a determination reflected in a sermon delivered to the congregation April 2. In the church’s temporary sanctuary in a nearby funeral home, Robert Hildebrandt, visiting pastor, preached on John 12:20-33, about Greeks who yearn to see Jesus and about the hour to come “for the Son of man to be glorified .... Very truly I tell you (Jesus says) unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit. ... Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

The congregation sang “When Peace, Like a River” (Lutheran Book of Worship, 346) and Hildebrandt noted that author Horatio Spafford was inspired to write the hymn, including the words “When sorrows, like sea billows, roll,” after four of his daughters were lost in an accident at sea on a trip from England to America.

“Where are you in your journey toward seeing Jesus?” Hildebrandt preached. “What do you sing for? What do you long for?” He said many long for money or meaning and that he understood his listeners yearn to be back in Grace and that they long to see friends who have moved away after Katrina.

“Are you more focused on getting your way or being used by God?” Hildebrandt asked. “Are you in touch with the God who loves us? Do you long for the opportunity to share that love?” He described the central importance of “proclaiming God’s reign of love to others and ourselves.”

Wee and another church leader, Karen Hazlaris, explained that Grace has enjoyed many blessings in recent months, including the support of folks like Trinity members. Although much of their focus is on a building, Hazlaris said the post-flood experience reinforced the notion “that the church is people. You can see that in what has happened here.”

Hazlaris and Wee described the shock of seeing their devastated church on Sept. 15. Then Hazlaris led the challenge of trying to discover the whereabouts of displaced parishioners. She developed a database to track them. One by one, contacts were re-established.

At one point, Hazlaris and others feared an elderly member of the congregation may have died in the disaster. “But we discovered that he is safe in a nursing home in Texas,” she said, describing the rejoicing that news brought around Christmastime. “As far as we know no one belonging to Grace was killed in the disaster,” Hazlaris said.

The wrath of Katrina remains starkly vivid in the shells of ruined buildings throughout the Lakeview community nearly eight months after the hurricane.
Many, like Wee, fled the region to the homes of relatives or friends. Prior to Katrina, at least 200 worshiped each Sunday at Grace. About half have returned. A small number transferred, and several parishioners don’t live in the immediate Lakeview community.

Wee said he understands that many people outside of the New Orleans region question the wisdom of rebuilding the city and the hundreds of square miles of coastal devastation in Louisiana and Mississippi. (The storm’s bull’s-eye was Waveland, Miss.) As a scientist concerned about the environment, Wee acknowledged that rebuilding should probably not take place in some locations. But he said people need to have the opportunity to be restored to the wider community so many have been a part of for generations.

“The storm was incredibly far-reaching,” Wee said. “People many miles inland had been told they aren’t part of a flood plain and didn’t need flood insurance, and they lost everything. Beyond the culture and history that is part of New Orleans there is another reality. New Orleans is one of the country’s major seaports. People in Pennsylvania and elsewhere depend on goods originating from our port—including oil and gasoline. In America we depend on each other.”

In the spirit of the April 2 sermon, Wee said the people of Grace are determined to witness to their community in Katrina’s aftermath.

In reflecting on the lingering Lakeview devastation largely untouched since the storm, Wee said simply, “Not doing something is the worst thing.”


Staples visited Mississippi in April with 17 other members of Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdale, Pa., to aid in the recovery effort. They worked out of the Lutheran Episcopal Disaster Response center at Christus Victor Lutheran Church, Ocean Springs, Miss. He is a member of a regional Lutheran Disaster Response task Force in Pennsylvania and has served as a volunteer in four flood recovery efforts.


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