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Recovery experience brings hope amid the devastation

Editor: The following column on Hurricane Katrina was published in the Aug. 26 issue of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the New Orleans Archdiocese.

By PETER FINNEY, JR.
Editor of Clarion Herald

To me, the utter fury of Katrina will forever be seen through the eyes of Father Walter Austin, who is now stationed at Ascension of Our Lord Church in La Place but who on Aug. 29, 2005, was imbedded as a chaplain for the Louisiana National Guard at the Superdome.

On the fourth day after Katrina hit and turned the once-glittering stadium into a palace of pain, Father Austin had the job of trying to shepherd, safely, 30,000 restless evacuees on the verge of losing hope toward the buses that finally had arrived to take them out of town "“ four days too late.

As Father Austin walked on the fringe of the crowd between the Superdome and the second level of the New Orleans Centre, a man approached him and told him his sister had just had a miscarriage while walking among the massive throng.

'Let me go over and see her," Father Austin told the man.

'Oh no, Father, she doesn't want to get out of line because she might miss the bus," the man replied.

'That tells you everything you need to know about the survival instinct," Father Austin said later. 'That woman was in survival mode."

In many ways, that woman's story is our story. All of us who lived through Katrina have lost someone or something precious to us, and we have struggled to survive. Forget about moving forward. If you are doing the Australian crawl "“ the dog paddle "“ on Aug. 29, 2006, then you are a Katrina survivor.

We have struggled to understand the human calculus of survival. One of our family's doctors committed suicide in the weeks following Katrina. The New York Times reported that the suicide rate in the greater New Orleans area tripled in the four months after the storm.

Friends have snapped mentally. Marriages have ended. Mud and mold have buried homes and churches. Saltwater let into a fishbowl by human incompetence carried away loved ones and our comfort zone.

Our family was among the thousands who lost their homes to Katrina, but we were blessed with so many graces they have been impossible to count.

Friends gave us shelter. Strangers, who became friends, welcomed us into their homes, fed us, clothed us, became living Beatitudes to us.

The toughest lesson I had to learn was to allow this to happen. For most of our lives our family has been in a position to help others by doing for others. Then came Katrina, and we had to allow others to do for us. In a strange way, our gift to those who helped us was to allow them to live out their faith by helping us.

And now we must all help each other. There is still so much pain all around us, so many false starts, so much of nothing happening. People are struggling to remain people of hope.

Whenever I have a feeling that God has somehow forgotten about us, I recall another anonymous woman that we learned about in the weeks after Katrina. The woman, a member of St. Lawrence of Brindisi Church in the low-income Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, had no money with her when she came to church that day and a collection was taken up for hurricane relief.

The woman scribbled in Spanish on the outside flap of a collection envelope: 'For the victims of the hurricane. I did not bring any money. But this should be of some value. It is with all of my heart."

Inside the envelope was her gold wedding ring.

'It is very humbling to realize I am living among the poorest of the poor, but they are the wealthiest in so many ways," said Father Peter Banks, pastor of St. Lawrence.

To know there are people who have been sent into our lives to offer hope gives this Katrina survivor a lifetime of hope.

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