August 29, 2015
Ten years ago, I experienced firsthand how Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans when I was temporarily deployed as the chaplain to the 1/179 Infantry Battalion, 45th Brigade of the Oklahoma Army National Guard.
I saw several things there that I’ll never forget.
First, I’ll never forget the Amur leopards, orangutans, and the mysterious white alligators. Our unit bivouacked outside the Audubon Zoo, and securing it was part of our job.
However, our biggest job became patrolling our sector of the steamy city in eight-man squads. Every patrol was a dirty, dangerous and often gruesome job that our soldiers carried out with the same seriousness they use to approach combat.
We patrolled in full “battle rattle,” the maximum amount of gear a soldier is expected to carry: helmet, goggles, flak vest, tac vest, pistol belt, canteen — essentially our “go to war” pack.
From the backseat of a Humvee, I saw folks watching us with uncertain eyes, unsure if they should thank us or blame us for not coming sooner. You could see the abandonment haunting those left behind, discarded and marginalized. Like something out of a zombie movie, they wandered abandoned roads searching for food and shelter.
My most notable recollection is of the odor, a hybrid of every possible sewer odor with every imaginable stink from the city dump. Floodwater sloshed through our doorless Humvee, and we were baptized with the gagging brown slush.
Moreover, I won’t forget how quickly so many otherwise law-abiding people succumbed to corruption. They broke open doors on blocks of stores using stolen cars and even a forklift. People used the storm to finish their quarrels. Criminals settled scores with police officers, and a few bad officers settled scores with whomever they pleased.
Our sector was a working-class neighborhood with shotgun homes sitting on elevated stilts or sloops. If no one answered our knock, we used our master key — a 20-pound sledgehammer. In each home, we looked for survivors, looters or bodies. We sometimes found all three.
My best memory was conducting a Sunday worship service inside a classroom at the zoo. Addressing a mix of soldiers and zoo employees, I began by asking folks to name the hardest thing they’d likely remember from the week.
Most of the soldiers mentioned separation from families or the heat. Some spoke about their pride in rescuing pets and senior citizens. Employees talked about losing their homes, while some soldiers dared mention the donning of surgical masks to manage the rancid smell of the dead.
As I looked at the troops, I could see many hadn’t managed a bath in days. I knew they were hot, tired and continually thirsty. So I began my sermon by reading Psalm 69:1. “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths.”
I told them the Psalm represented the prayer of New Orleans, and they were appointed to answer that prayer. Then I called them something I suspect they’d never been called.
“You are sacred,” I told them. “In the midst of driving through this black water, gagging on fumes from who-knows-what, you are completing a sacred task. You are rescuing the perishing.”
Now, 10 years later, U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that New Orleans is again among the 50 most-populated cities in the U.S. Businesses continue their rebound, with some even surpassing pre-Katrina levels.
Ten years later, these statistics give me some hope that my worst memories of Katrina are becoming an answered prayer for a new, New Orleans. God Bless you NOLA as you continue to recover.
Send comments to [email protected] or P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759. Twitter @chaplain. Leave your recorded comments at (843) 608-9715. Visit my website at www.thechaplain.net where you can download a free chapter from my new book, “Hero’s Highway.”