KROTZ SPRINGS, La. — “When I leave with the Blessed Sacrament, you’d better leave with me,” Father Mark Ledoux is telling his parishioners, “because then it’s really going to be time to go.” 

St. Anthony of Padua in Krotz Springs, La., where Father Ledoux is pastor, is a few blocks from the swollen Atchafalaya River, caught between two floodways. Krotz Springs is one of the many small towns in Louisiana’s colorful Cajun country facing the possibility of severe flooding now that the Morganza Spillway has been opened to relieve pressure on the Mississippi River and spare more heavily populated New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Many families in places like Krotz Springs have already left or are packing up their belongings, trying to judge how long they have before the flooding starts. Some, however, have decided to remain in Krotz Springs, hoping that the new levee being erected around the town by frantic citizens, the National Guard and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers will hold. A Bloomberg report notes that Krotz Springs looks “like a military occupation zone” and that for night patrols guardsmen are armed with M4 rifles.

As for Father Ledoux, who plans to stay unless ordered to evacuate, he says his flock is “stressed, concerned and praying fervently.” Meanwhile, his small church is looking bare — the priest has removed sacramental records, vestments, statues and liturgical vessels for storage in churches on higher ground. Bishop Michael Jarrell of the Lafayette Diocese — one of six dioceses in this heavily Catholic state — was at St. Anthony’s last Sunday to preside at confirmation, a week before the bishop was supposed to be there. Father Ledoux asked him to come early because of fears that the town might be inaccessible the day of the scheduled visit.

“It was a blessing and consolation that he was here in the midst of this challenge that we face,” said the pastor.

“This challenge” is the worst flooding of the Mississippi River since the epic flood of 1927, which has passed into lore for people whose families were affected then. It is estimated that 3,000 square miles in Louisiana could be submerged and 25,000 people affected. The waters are moving more slowly than original projections, and nobody knows when they will arrive. The plan to flood smaller communities to protect larger ones was developed after the 1927 flood. Cairo, Ill., was spared massive flooding earlier this month by sacrificing 200 square miles of nearby farmland.

Latest Disaster

For residents of Louisiana, these floods will be just the latest in a series of natural disasters to hit the region.

“This is just part of a continuing disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” said Robert Gorman, executive director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux. The region still has not recovered from last year’s BP oil spill, said Gorman.

Msgr. Christopher Nalty of Good Shepherd Parish-St. Stephen’s Church in New Orleans was going to celebrate a special Mass Friday for those involved in hurricane protection. Now the Mass will also be for those involved in flood relief.

“We are better prepared than in 1927. People are taking this very seriously. But folks are anxious and worried because you don’t know where the water is going to show up,” said Gorman.

Morgan City, the end of the line for diverted waters before they flow into the Gulf of Mexico, is a particular concern, he said. Parts of Morgan City were flooded in 1973, the last time the Morganza Spillway was opened. Flooding is expected to hit Morgan City by the end of the week.

Catholic Charities of Houma-Thibodaux’s “Matthew 25” disaster-relief program is already set up and operating in Morgan City.

“They are preparing 500 sandwiches twice a day for first responders,” Gorman said.

They are also readying clean-up kits, including disinfectants, for the region.

Although New Orleans will likely be safe, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New Orleans
has sent workers to Butte La Rose, another small town in the Atchafalaya Basin, which expects heavy flooding.

The Diocese of Baton Rouge’s call for volunteers on its website reflects the uncertainty in the air: “While we don’t know exactly what is going to happen, one thing is certain: We’re going to need volunteers. We don’t know how many, what they will be doing, or where the work is needed, but we’re going to need your help,” it reads. Baton Rouge is not expected to be affected by flooding.

Leslie Doles, spokeswoman for Second Harvest Food Bank, an affiliated ministry of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, said yesterday that “things are developing rapidly.”

“We’re making sure that we are prepared for when we get the call,” Doles said.

They are collecting food, water and cleaning supplies. “It’s important to have cleaning supplies,” Doles stressed, “because we don’t want people to divert money from food to cleaning supplies.”

Nobody knows that sense of uncertainty better than Father Ledoux and his parishioners at St. Anthony of Padua in beleaguered Krotz Springs. Father Ledoux said that it has been hard for officials to convince people near his parish to leave because “they don’t see the water yet. It’s also not knowing when they will get to come home, if they do leave, and what they will come back home to.”

Despite the difficulty of working on the new levee and the news reports of encroaching water, Father Ledoux says his parishioners are, for the most part, remaining calm: “What I hear is that God is going to provide, and we are trusting him to take care of us in this challenge.” 

Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington, D.C.