August 25, 2015 – Gordon Wadge
“How’s ya mom and them?”
This wonderful, warm and welcoming New Orleans greeting took on special meaning in the months and years following Katrina and Rita. Shared between family and friends, it became the opening line inviting the sharing of our stories of survival, displacement, rebuilding and healing.
We all have our stories. On the Friday night before Katrina hit, I was having dinner with family and friends at Jaeger’s at West End. Earlier that day, and on Thursday, my friend Jim Kelly and I, as co-leaders of Catholic Charities, helped our dedicated teams evacuate our residential programs, sending the most vulnerable families and children north to safe haven.
We thought, at the time, that this was just a precaution ahead of a Category 2 storm that was headed to Pensacola. By dinnertime on Friday, everything had changed.
I remember hugging my family and sending them into the endless contraflow in the early morning hours on Saturday. I spent the rest of that night alone in our home trying to get a few hours rest before heading to the Superdome with Jim to help staff the shelter of last resort.
Surreal scene at Dome
The next night at the Dome was surreal. The AC was set to “freezing,” perhaps in anticipation of the coming power outages. Families were trying to find quiet corners to calm their children, and the Dome televisions were tuned to WWL for constant weather updates. Katrina filled the screen and filled the Gulf. I was prepared with my battery-powered shower radio; that Boy Scout training paid off!
Dome and arena general manager Doug Thornton and National Guard men and women were set to manage the incoming crowd as best they could. Father Walter Austin, a National Guard officer and chaplain, was among Catholic leaders on duty in the Dome.
Jim and I were joined by Jesuit Father Jim Deshotels, a nurse practitioner with the Daughters of Charity and Catholic Charities, in the medically frail treatment area. Soon 50 seniors arrived in wheelchairs.
“What’s going on?” I asked the lead staff nurse accompanying the group. “Our nursing home evacuation buses didn’t show up,” she said. “We have nowhere else to go.”
We did our best, along with other volunteers, to calm and comfort the seniors who were visibly traumatized. We had no beds. They would have to stay in their wheelchairs. One frail senior struggled to survive the trauma and soon went home to the Lord. Father Jim and I decided not to use the body bags available and instead transported her with dignity in her wheelchair – as if she were asleep – to the coroner’s area.
Stars stood out
There are so many more stories Jim Kelly and I could share about dignity and despair in the Dome. We were humbled yet privileged to be part of the Catholic Church’s caring presence. I remember walking from the Dome to the archdiocesan office building at Howard Avenue at night with our flashlights. All the stars of heaven were visible from downtown New Orleans. As the storm passed and the floodwaters rose, we made plans to head to Baton Rouge, assess the situation and join in the response.
What a blessing it was for Jim and me to work hand in hand with the wounded workers of Catholic Charities, including Tom Costanza, Martin Gutierrez, Tim Robertson, Shirley Lachmann, Joe Mahoney, Dr. Elmore Rigamer, Sharon Pierson, Daughter of Charity Sister Judith Bright, Connie Andry, Orville Duggan, Cheryl Laborde, Brian Greene, Marianite Sister Ann Lacour and Aaron Portier. I wish I could list them all.
Everyone struggled through great loss yet continued to serve and minister to others. How heartbreaking it was to have so many of our staff scattered across the country, unable to come home. I remember the emotional conversation I had with my colleague and friend, Coral Robinson, a native New Orleanian and Saints season ticketholder with her dad from Day One. Her family lost so much. I remember her interview with a Houston newspaper. Her young son wanted to know what happened to his autographed Saints football. She had to tell him, “Katrina was a greedy girl. She took everything.”
A healing team
We are a resurrection people. With the support of our sisters and brothers in Baton Rouge, Archbishop Alfred Hughes gathered leaders of the Archdiocese of New Orleans and directed both the response and the healing. He supported Father William Maestri, then superintendent of Catholic schools, to reopen schools, allowing families who could to return and rebuild.
My wife Mary returned to her St. Francis Xavier kindergarten class. Her fellow faculty members were called to serve children from across the region.
Archbishop Hughes opened the door for Catholic Charities to begin the Helping Hands program and welcome thousands of volunteers from across the country to labor with us in clearing debris and rebuilding our homes and our lives.
Our archdiocesan Second Harvest Food Bank became the largest food bank in the country, almost overnight. Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, flew to Baton Rouge and rallied the Catholic Charities family nationwide to help New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We were surrounded in love.
The Holy Spirit rode with us on a little yellow Catholic Charities bus. As we pulled up to St. Anthony’s Parish in Baton Rouge, days after the storm, the elder women in the Vietnamese community who fled the flood in New Orleans East greeted us in the parking lot. They were clothed in their formal, traditional and elegant dresses.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop Hughes, Archbishop Philip Hannan, Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes (the emissary from the Vatican’s humanitarian arm Cor Unum) and other church leaders were led from the bus to the cafeteria by the elder women. Hundreds of Vietnamese evacuees rose together and sang in unison “God Bless America” as we entered the cafeteria. The Holy Spirit greeted us in the cafeteria.
Of the many gifts and notes we received in the days and months after Katrina, a special note and accompanying check from a young couple from Hawaii renewed our faith.
It read, “We baptized our son this week and asked all of our family and guests to offer donations in his name to Catholic Charities in New Orleans. Please accept this gift from our family to yours.”
Apparently “How’s ya mom and them” is spoken in Hawaii, too.
Gordon Wadge is president/ CEO of the YMCA of Greater New Orleans.