Division Director Tom Costanza Reflects on Hurricane Katrina

Published on September 2, 2015

Catholic Charities was given the opportunity to serve in the aftermath of Katrina and the whole organization became a humble servant to the human and property catastrophe that followed.  The senior leadership of CCANO was visibly present in the Superdome caring for and consoling victims of the storm. At the airport, where there was a surreal situation with mash unit type operations and evacuees lined up to the airline highway, Catholic Charities social workers were there giving compassion and direct care to the frail elderly in the baggage claim areas. Stretchers were everywhere with frail, scared elderly where we usually look for our luggage. We fed them and gave them spiritual nourishment. The catholic priest who mobilized to the airport began praying and responding to the tugs on his shirt. It was in my estimation a deep moment of his priesthood.

It was an important time.  The character of the agency was revealed and it was an absolute blessing to observe and be a part of. CCANO immediately went into the trailer parks where our residents were living… black and white residents from St. Bernard and the lower ninth ward now bonded with racial barriers overcome in ways that can never be broken. Both plucked from the top of their rooftops and now forever friends. The agency became a “field hospital” as Pope Francis has asked the Catholic Church to be. We worked in collaboration with State and Federal agencies to secure massive mental health crisis services. We canvassed every house in the impacted area to offer mental health counseling and compassionate support. Our massive food programs with Second Harvest and Food for Families Food for Seniors worked in harmony with FEMA to support the points of distribution across the impacted area.

The agency worked in harmony with support staff doing who were doing all the necessary administrative tasks to keep those in the field supported. Over 80% of the CCANO staff was impacted yet they came back to help others while going back home at night to fix their homes.  We began raising funds and the generosity was astounding. We were focused on being the humble servant that our faith calls us to be. Catholic Charities USA raised over 100,000 million dollars and began organizing an unprecedented relief effort under their leadership. We began a massive and effective rebuild organization called Operation Helping Hands that helped hundreds of residents.

As the response phase ended and the rebuild phase began, Catholic Charities became one of the lead agencies in coordinating a massive interfaith effort that brought their best disaster response staff to the area. We were all one; forever bonded to this day, where doctrinal differences did not get in the way of seeing the ultimate value of the human being and the commonly held belief in the common good of humanity. This interfaith collaboration will serve us well on many levels as we continue to work together on the systemic challenges of poverty that still exist.  We were a concrete example of catholic social teaching guiding our response. It is with much gratitude that we commemorate the 10 Year mark of this important moment in the history of Catholic Charities.

By Division Director Tom Costanza