August 25, 2015 – James Kelly
At 1 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 26, the hurricane-tracking forecasters began predicting that Katrina was headed for New Orleans. Catholic Charities’ immediate priority was to evacuate our residential programs and clients: those who were battered, abused, neglected, disabled, mentally ill and homeless.
It was a mammoth undertaking. In less than two days, we packed up and sent 300 clients and staff to northern Louisiana and Mississippi. Our folks were 100 percent committed to the safety and well-being of each and every client.
Throughout, I was blessed to share in leadership with my good friend, Gordon Wadge, co-president of Catholic Charities. Once all our caravans were on the road, we headed to the Superdome on Sunday afternoon. The Dome became a shelter of last resort for the most vulnerable citizens of New Orleans. We helped move the frail, sick and elderly from the loading docks to a special needs unit staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses.
Calm despite conditions
Early the next morning, Katrina struck. Gordon and I first felt a few drops of rain before realizing that the wind had torn off parts of the Dome’s roof. Our fellow inhabitants, the poor of our city, were amazingly calm. Throughout the following harrowing days, we watched good and brave people come together to support and assist each other in this darkest of times.
Not until Monday afternoon did we receive word that a number of floodwalls had collapsed and that our city was filling up with water. The National Guard (and so many other armed services, police, fire and volunteers) did an amazing and courageous job of rescuing folks over the course of the next week in New Orleans and surrounding parishes.
Gordon and I eventually made our way to Baton Rouge, where we set up temporary shop with Archbishop Alfred Hughes, the staff of Catholic Charities and the archdiocese. We worked around the clock doing all that we could for our fellow refugees. We immediately sent a team to the airport to assist in the evacuation of tens of thousands and, as God would have it, to minister to those too sick and frail for the flights out of town.
Caring for all
General Russel Honoré and Archbishop Hughes were the most critical leaders in the days following the storm. The general brought calm to our rooftops, flooded streets and neighborhoods. He convinced the traumatized victims of Katrina to put away their guns – and then led the efforts to rescue ALL who were stranded.
A few weeks later, the archbishop announced that the archdiocese would reopen the Cathedral School for the children of emergency workers living on the ships docked along the river. This bold and faith-filled decision led to the reopening of more than 100 parochial, public and private schools. It allowed our children (and families) to come home.
The unprecedented outpouring of support and prayers from across the United States and the world was almost beyond comprehension. The prayers helped sustain us and gave us real hope. The generosity of spirit and the donations that followed allowed us to practice the Gospels in way that we could never have imagined.
Across the Archdiocese, we distributed 250 million pounds of food. We provided counseling to more than 100,000 people. We gave out $55 million in direct assistance. We assisted in the rebuilding and construction of 3,500 homes and apartments. Those are just a few examples of the phenomenal work of Catholic Charities and many archdiocesan parishes, schools and agencies.
Gordon and I are forever grateful for the humble leadership and prayerful support of Archbishop Hughes throughout the recovery, relief and rebuilding efforts.
Additionally, we were blessed by our board of directors, thousands of volunteers, an extraordinary team of dedicated, caring professionals, and personally, our wives and families who encouraged and sustained us.
I have never been prouder of my church. In the midst of our own grieving, we came together as a people of faith to very simply love God and love our neighbor – especially those most in need.
As we reflect on Katrina and her aftermath, we remember how this horrific hurricane peeled back the curtain for the world to see the face of poverty that has long plagued New Orleans. We at Catholic Charities worked extremely hard to make sure that ALL could come home to a more vibrant and healthier city.
In so many ways we have seen enormous progress: stronger schools, better health care, new and improved housing, and a bustling economy. But the poorest of the poor have not seen “all the boats rise together.” In fact, today, 34 percent of youth and children in the Archdiocese of New Orleans live in poverty – 100,000 children of God.
I believe tragic disparities like these call us as Catholics to follow the prophetic message of Pope Francis. We must rededicate ourselves these next 10 years to be God’s hands and feet – and to lift up our children, our poor and our most vulnerable.
Jim Kelly is executive director of Covenant House New Orleans.