Remembering Katrina – From Afar (Part 1 of 2)


Despite living more than 1,000 miles away from the Gulf Coast, I feel linked to that region. There was something about Hurricane Katrina and the events that followed that gripped me and pulled me in. Since then, I have visited the Gulf Coast twice – once to Mississippi, and once to New Orleans. My son, Alex, now lives there, working the last two years to help rebuild homes, first through the Presbyterian Church (USA), and now through Americorps (although still with a PCUSA-sponsored organization). Sunday, August 29, is the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

The week Katrina swirled its way through the Gulf, slamming into the coast and leaving unbelievable destruction in its wake, I was serving jury duty here in the Silicon Valley. The case was particularly gut-wrenching, involving a 32-year-old man who, in a drunken stupor,  had molested his 13-year-old female cousin and then, after sobering up, threatened to kill her if she told anyone. We eventually voted to convict the man of all charges. When I wasn’t in court, I was in front of the TV switching between news channels. It was an extremely emotional couple of weeks as I experienced intense drama almost every waking moment of every day either in court or through the TV. One day in court as we listened to a litany of what had gone wrong in the family – alcoholism, drug addiction, absentee parents, etc. – I thought, “This is this family’s Hurricane Katrina.”

As I watched the story of the aftermath of the storm day after day, I found myself yelling at the TV in frustration, “Why isn’t anyone doing anything?!” I was watching the moment Anderson Cooper took Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu to task for thanking a long list of politicians who were – finally – taking action. As if speaking for all of us, Cooper said, “Excuse me senator…for the last four days I’ve been seeing dead bodies in the streets of Mississippi, and to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, I’ve got to tell you there are a lot of people here who are very angry and very frustrated, and when they hear politicians thanking one another, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now.”

Katrina was – like 9/11 before it – a surreal moment in U.S. history. How, I kept asking, how, in one of the supposedly most advanced countries in the world are we letting people suffer and die? On TV? It wasn’t like we didn’t know what was going on. It was unfolding in real time in front of us. Days went by with people sitting on rooftops, as precious time ticked by and nothing seemed to be happening. Five years later, and I still can’t believe it happened. This week NBC news anchor Brian Williams told Jon Stewart in an interview on The Daily Show, “I can’t believe this was allowed to happen to our citizens.”

In August, 2006 11 months after Katrina hit, I found myself in Long Beach, MS., supporting my church’s youth mission trip. Another mom and I bought and prepared food daily for nearly 100 youth and adults. As we walked down aisles in Sam’s Club and Winn-Dixie, residents – realizing we weren’t from around there – would stop us to ask us questions. When we told them why we were visiting, they would thank us for coming to help. Some told us they felt as if the government and the rest of the country had abandoned them.

It was a sobering trip. As we drove to and from Long Beach, we would pass miles and miles of devastated neighborhoods and commercial areas. It looked, as the saying goes, like a bomb, or rather multiple bombs, had gone off. Down one stretch of Highway 90, we could see a hotel still standing, with all it’s windows blown out of one side. You could still see the beds and furniture sitting there, exposed to the elements. We saw an odd-shaped skeleton of a building, not knowing what it was all week, later learning it had been Gulfport’s aquarium. In another area, the hollow shell of St. Thomas’ Catholic Church stood across the street from the beach. In the neighborhood where our group was staying, we drove up through several blocks of properties that had experienced a 30-foot storm surge. The homes and businesses were swept away, along with some of the residents who would not or could not leave. The local elementary school had an eerie feel to it; the school doors were open, and you could see all the children’s backpacks and jackets in the hallways. We were cautioned not to go inside because of the toxic mold that had overtaken the structure.

While the devastation was staggering to look at, we saw many positive things happening in and around Long Beach. Everywhere we went, we saw hundreds of volunteers working with numerous organizations there to rebuild. Most of the organizations were churches and faith-based groups. One of the underreported stories of that time was the large number of church volunteers who helped rebuild and heal residents’ lives. Everywhere we turned, there was another church van, or a truck from a faith-based organization, full of volunteers or building supplies. One inspiring place was God’s Katrina Kitchen, started by a church days after the storm hit. The kitchen was actually a large circus tent, where volunteers were fed each day. In back was a volunteer camp, with people staying there from all over North America. Not all of them were believers; many were non-believers who just wanted to help. The kitchen was open to anyone, including local residents and homeless people who were hungry and needed the meals.

At the end of the week, I didn’t want to leave. There was so much left to be done. ‘We have life so easy back at home,’ I thought, ‘Help is needed much more here.’ I felt uneasy, and even depressed, for three weeks after returning to California, which, I learned, was a common reaction among Gulf Coast volunteers. What I didn’t know then, was that I would return to the region in just a few years.

Inside St. Thomas'

Coming in Part 2: We visit New Orleans; work still needs to be done

You can help! Go to and donate money for Project Homecoming. This organization has rebuilt more than 120 homes in New Orleans utilizing labor from more than 8,000 volunteers from all over the country and world. There is still lots more to do, however. Money and volunteers are still needed.

If you live in the Silicon Valley, you can also help this Sunday, August 29, by eating at Roux Louisiana Kitchen, on Santana Row, in San Jose. A portion of the restaurant’s profits that day will go to Project Homecoming.