Hurricane Recovery: Catholics Give and Receive Aid, in Post-Ida Louisiana
‘To me, this about the Church being alive,’ one Catholic beneficiary of local relief initiatives told the Register.
NEW ORLEANS — Residents of Louisiana are used to hurricanes.
Yet even with a history of enduring catastrophic storms, Hurricane Ida was shocking to the men and women of the Bayou State. She was only forecast a few days before hitting shore and became tied as the strongest hurricane on record to ever strike Louisiana. Sustained winds measured at 150 mph as a Category-4 hurricane when Ida hit Port Fourchon on Aug. 29. Gusts were reported at 172 mph.
For Catholics living in Louisiana, this has been a moment of experiencing community in action and being on the receiving end of desperately needed assistance.
Beauty in Hahnville
Craig Howat lives 20 minutes west of New Orleans in a town called Hahnville. Howat, his wife and two younger children evacuated to Houston before Ida struck. The day after, he drove to Baton Rouge to pick up his two college-aged sons. During the first week back home after the storm, the whole family slept in one room in the house with a window air conditioning unit powered by a generator. Later on, they were given a second window AC, which they put in the living room. Howat believes this is the worst hurricane damage he has ever seen. In some neighborhoods, every house was flooded or damaged by wind.
“We came back to find that we were blessed. We only had some roof damage, water under the doors and we lost some trees, but our lives are intact,” said Howat.
For the Howat family, Ida has thrown a spotlight onto something else that the secular media seems to have missed.
“To me, this is about the Church being alive,” said Howat. “On the news, all you hear about is division in our Catholic Church. But our Catholic Church is united. Each of the parishes and their pastors are leading. They are shepherds right now that are serving. That is the beauty.”
Howat noted how a Hispanic Catholic apostolate led by Father Bernardo Torres from St. Jules Church in Lafayette, Louisiana, came into his town and prepared 1,500 meals. They set up a BBQ pit in the parking lot of his parish of St. Charles Borromeo in Destrehan at 7am.
Afterwards, they helped people in the town cut down some trees with a group of five Regnum Christi volunteers.
“The Regnum Christi mission group was standing right next to us, gutting houses in Destrehan, Norco and Laplace. We were pulling out the sheet rock, to keep the mold from settling in,” he said. “To me, there’s the devastation of the storm, but there’s so much more beauty in the recovery.”
Standing in the Rain in Destrehan
Father Dominic Arcuri lives in Destrehan, 20 minutes south of Hahnville. He is the pastor of St. Charles Borromeo, with 2,500 parishioners. For Father Arcuri, Ida was worse than Katrina. His area measured wind speeds at 162 mph.
“It has been very disheartening. There is damage throughout the area. Most homes have been impaired, with large trees uprooted. The power is out, and we are being told that it may take four to five weeks to get the power back on,” said Father Arcuri. “Everybody in our parish is hurting. All are in need.”
Last year, when the city of Lake Charles, Louisiana, was hit by two hurricanes, Father Arcuri’s parish went to help parishes there. Today, they are seeing parishes from Lake Charles come to bring assistance to them. Another group from Panama City, Florida, has come to do house repairs for families in the parish.
“When you give from the heart, it comes back to you. We see people coming to our aid, and it has lifted our hearts,” said Father Arcuri. “There are so many volunteers. Thank you, Lord, for loving us the way you do.”
On the day of the interview, rain was pouring down on volunteers who were out in front of his parish preparing hot meals.
“People outside are wet to the bone. They are Jesus among us. It is so beautiful, all the volunteers with their Christlike attitude. It is unbelievable,” he said.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond of the Archdiocese of New Orleans was among those who came to serve food and assist in the cleanup in Destrehan.
To date, the priest said, the U.S. government had not yet brought aid to his community — probably because the area of destruction is so vast. But because of the rapid help from Christians in the area, Father Arcuri feels uplifted.
“We got a call from a parish in Bogalusa. They want to come and feed 1,000 people. Another group — the Knights of Columbus in Breaux Bridge — came and brought food and gasoline,” he said.
In all aspects, the Catholic Church has been faster to help than any other group.
“Nobody is sitting around waiting for the government,” he said.
Looking at the Sky Through the Sanctuary
Father Mitch Semar is the Catholic pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, located on the campus of Nicholls State University. He lives in Thibodaux, Louisiana, which is 50 miles southwest of New Orleans.
“When Ida hit us [in Thibodaux], it was 2 miles shy of being a Category-5 hurricane. I evacuated to the north, to Amite City [more than 100 miles north], and Ida came right at us as a Category 2,” said Father Semar. “It will take a long time for people to rebuild their lives. We were blessed. We only had a tree fall on our student center, but the tree broke in half.”
Father Semar notes that a number of the students at Nicholls State University, where 75% of the school community lives off campus, lost everything they had.
“Many have lost their homes and only have whatever clothes were in their suitcase,” he said. “We lost power. We are working to prepare three meals per day and to clean out the dorms.”
When Ida came on shore, it was coming straight for Father Semar’s parish church. Then the storm curved around his area.
“We are the least affected in the diocese. God’s hand just moved it. So many other parts of the diocese are devastated, with roofs just blown off,” he said.
He noted that there are many challenges ahead.
‘It’s not just that we lost electricity. Our lives have been turned upside down. Some churches have walls down. Others, you can look up in the sanctuary and see the sky. Then you add the dynamite of COVID,” he said.
One of the biggest problems is losing hope.
“It can be discouraging if we let it be, or we can come together and the best of humanity steps up. We see this incredible love. God is walking the streets of the Bayou,” he said.
Catholic groups from Lake Charles, which is still rebuilding from last year’s hurricanes, are organizing to come and feed between 700 and 1,000 meals for Father Semar’s parish.
“We are in the shadow of the cross,” said Father Semar. “We can lean into it and get wonderful graces.”
Father Steve Dardis, pastor of Holy Family parish, lives in Luling, Louisiana. When Ida struck, he hunkered down with his parents 25 minutes northwest in Bucktown, a part of the city of Metairie, Louisiana, immediately adjacent to New Orleans. The eye of the storm ended up passing over Luling.
“But where we were was still bad,” said Father Dardis. “The storm did lots of damage.”
Father Dardis’ parish suffered minor flooding under the doors. His entire county of St. Charles Parish has no electricity, with estimates of power coming back on in mid-September or October.
“We have some people with generators; others walking around with gasoline cans. It’s a Third-World experience,” he said.
What has heartened Father Dardis are the gifts coming in.
“People throughout the county have been bringing in lots of material supplies. People are coming in from Texas with generators. Bottled water was delivered by the United Way. One of our parishioners has a friend in California who is bringing in two semi-trucks, mostly filled with water,” said Father Dardis.
Another group from Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Margaret Mary Churches in Slidell, Louisiana, came and cooked 7,000 meals — three meals per day — for Holy Family parish and St. Anthony of Padua parish. They were helped by the students from Pope John Paul II High School of Slidell.
Father Dardis is grateful for all the support people have been giving his parish.
“We need lots of prayers, especially for those losing hope. We need prayers that supplies get to their destinations,” he said.
Intact Stained-Glass Windows
Father Ray Hymel is the pastor of St. Gertrude the Great parish in Des Allemands, located southwest of New Orleans. When Ida came, he evacuated to his sister’s house in Baton Rouge with the Blessed Sacrament and sacramental records.
The next day, Father Hymel drove back to find his parish’s four buildings severely damaged.
His actual church building suffered the most damage, with exposed shingles and wood.
“The interior of the church is totally ruined by the moisture. It will have to be completely replaced,” he said. “The wires were just ripped from the buildings.”
Interestingly, the only thing that did not get damaged were the stained-glass windows. They were left perfectly intact.
“We are the recipients of so much help. The Red Cross has been serving meals every day. There has been an outpouring of help from people in Houston. One of my parishioners has a relative in Houston who owns a restaurant. They have come to serve us lunch and dinner. Other agencies have brought in water, cleaning supplies; 18-wheelers have come into our parking lot bringing bagged ice,” he said.
Armed with patience and gratitude, the Catholic community in Louisiana waits for better days while marveling at the care of those who got spared.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
For donations, go to Catholic Charities New Orleans at CCANO.org.
- hurricane ida