The storm was fierce! Even Hattiesburg 100 miles inland was crippled. All power was gone. Reserve power gas pumps had cue lines a mile long. Water supplies ran low. After two days, we decided to head to Jackson to ease the situation. Wednesday morning we started snaking our way up debris-littered Highway 49, dodging downed trees and power lines. After hours, we finally got to Jean’s mother’s house in Ridgeland, MS, just north of Jackson. We did not realize we would spend the next two months living there with her mother, refugees of a disaster of historical proportions.
New Orleans, LA
Everyone at the seminary was under great duress during this entire process. The campus was destroyed. No one could live there. Those who lived on campus, including our precious students, lost all they owned. All administration had to relocate to our Atlanta extension center campus. All our computer services had to move and reboot in Atlanta. All classes had to be ported to the Internet to enable students to continue the fall courses they just had begun. We were an entire seminary—staff, students, faculty, and administration—in exile. Now, when I think back to those days, I cannot believe what we did. We still had graduation exercises that December in a church in Birmingham, AL.
New Orleans slowly drained the stagnant water, shoveled the toxic sludge, and struggled to come back to life. Personally, we dodged the bullet in our Westbank home. Jean and I had moved off the seminary campus after living there for ten years to the Westbank across the Mississippi River, which was one of the few areas of the city that did not flood. We lost trees and had some minor roof damage, but our home was spared. We still were not able to move back for two months because Jean’s law office in New Orleans was out of commission.
Lower Ninth Ward
Every summer for four years after Katrina destroyed most of New Orleans, I volunteered a week of vacation time at the Baptist Cross-roads/Habitat site in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward.
During that time I also led groups of seminary students to the Ninth Ward construction site on the anniversary of Katrina in conjunction with the seminary’s Katrina Work Day observation. The seminary had established a wonderful initiative of volunteerism. For several years on the anniversary of Katrina, seminary classes did not meet that day. Instead, teams of seminary students were organized and sent out all over the city of New Orleans to work and minister in many sites, gutting houses, cleaning debris, remodeling, painting, mowing, and other manual labors jobs. I always took my teams to the Crossroads-Habitat site each year. These experiences truly were rewarding and created lasting bonds with my students.
The images and videos of the broken levees were all over the news. Then, the news media left, and the nation’s attention turned elsewhere. People whose lives were completely destroyed, their accumulated life possessions pushed outside and piled high into the median of the street, were left to their misery. Many families simply never returned. Their lost homes were left as they were the day after the storm, stinking of rot, decay, mold, and mildew as they sat in dank water for weeks. When the waters finally receded, a toxic blanket of grey sludge covered everything like a nuclear winter in New Orelans East, Chalmette, Ninth Ward, and elsewhere.
The storm hit at the end of August, and we spent all of September and October at Jean’s mother’s in Jackson. The NOBTS faculty pushed all of its courses for that fall semester out onto the Internet, and I continued teaching classes from an Internet connection in a back bedroom. The Jackson State Fair came to town while Jean and I were Katrina evacuees staying at her mother’s house in the fall of 2005. We were under a lot of stress in those days, and the state fair was a nice diversion for a moment. We always think of the Jackson State Fair fondly, as we attended the fair during college days at Southern in Hattiesburg. Jean still has a stuffed dog I won for her back in those days. (The poor video is because all we had at the time was a rinky-dink cell phone camera.)
During our two months in Jackson that fall and the months that followed, our home was a place of refuge for seminary families and others who who spent many weekends there. After we ourselves were able to return to our home at the beginning of November, we continued to host seminary families who needed a place to stay and took care of seminary students who were struggling to finish courses for December graduation, some by independent study, staying at our house on weekends. In the spring of 2006 we fed early campus returnees with Jean’s homecooked meals.
The highlight of these experiences of rebuilding and hope was when my Crossroads/Habitat team was greeted by President George W. Bush on the first anniversary of Katrina in 2006. The team shared in prayer with the president, which was a particularly meaningful moment for all who participated. The president’s press office took our picture for us and sent each of us a signed copy.
New Orleans, of course, was not the only place devastated by the storm. The entire gulf coast was damaged in one way or another. My father’s childhood home on Second Street in Gulfport, MS was destroyed. First Baptist Church, Gulfport provided one of the iconic images of that awful storm’s mind-numbing destructive power. We never will forget Katrina.