The Luckiest Man in New Orleans
In Person With Raymond Arroyo from 10 years ago, following Hurricane Katrina
Editor's Note: This story was originally posted on Sept. 11, 2005.
Raymond Arroyo, news broadcaster for EWTN, feels like he has dodged two bullets.
The face of “The World Over” program on the Eternal Word Television Network cable channel was born and raised in New Orleans, then moved away at age 18 to attend New York University. He went home to New Orleans in 1999 when he and his wife had their first baby. They lived there until they evacuated as Hurricane Katrina approached.
He spoke with Register staff writer Tim Drake from Hanceville, Ala., days before the release of Mother Angelica, his biography of the founder of EWTN.
This interview will appear in the Sept. 11 issue of the Register. Those of us watching coverage of the devastation and death in New Orleans can't help but link the two.
I lived in New York for eight years. My heart ached when the towers fell, but New York held. When the towers came down it was an awful tragedy, but the city held.
Here, we don't have the city. It's all gone.
This isn't just the cathedral and the Superdome being damaged, this is a way of life ending.
Are we going to go through the trouble of rebuilding? That is the real question, but who will go back? Who will we rebuild for? We don't know the extent of the devastation.
You're not getting the real visuals, the on-the-ground stuff. You have the world looking at it, but they can't get in.
How did you make the decision to evacuate for Katrina?
I was in Birmingham doing the show Friday night, Aug. 26. When I saw the trajectory of this hurricane, it looked a lot like Camille and Betsy. I knew from my history lessons in New Orleans what could happen, and I just had a feeling. So, I called my wife and told her to pack some things and the kids to be ready to evacuate. I landed at the New Orleans airport at 10:30 a.m. I didn't want to sit in 48 hours of traffic or axe my way out of the attic with a 14-day-old daughter, so we evacuated.
We loaded our Toyota Sienna minivan and departed at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
What part of the city did you live in?
We lived in Metairie, a suburb, three blocks away from Lake Pontchartrain. From the sketchy reports we're getting, our neighborhood is under five to eight feet of water. My guess is that the house is a goner. The important thing is that we are alive and made it through this apocalypse.
What was it like getting out of town?
As we drove out, the angels were smiling on us. It was like the path was cleared for me. There was no traffic. All of the gas in our neighborhood was gone. We got on the Interstate and within 20 minutes I was able to fill up the car. It was unbelievable.
Yet, we could find no hotels anywhere. When you're in a storm, you hold onto momma, so I called Mother Angelica.
I said, “Look, I have no place to go.”
They invited us to come stay at a guest house in Hanceville, Ala., near the shrine. It took us 6 1/2 hours to get there. By and large, we were blessed.
What did you pack?
Very little. I had the wherewithal to grab my wardrobe. I grabbed six suits and shirts so I would be able to work.
With the book tour coming up, I threw my books in. I also took some of my stack of bootleg Sinatra CDs. Everything else I left.
It was hard leaving my books and my music, but you can't eat Graham Greene first editions. As you reflect on your diplomas and even all the signed letters, you realize it's all passing. It's not important.
Thankfully, the book is done. That's a real blessing. God's timing is always right, even when we don't understand it. Something ends and something begins.
What are you hearing from friends in New Orleans?
One friend told me that they got out of the house with the clothing on their backs, three relics and a statue of Mary. I have friends who are wandering around with 12 people with them. They have no source of income and no place to go.
There are snakes, alligators, open gas and oil lines, live electricity, bodies and sewage in this nasty pool that is weaving its way through our homes.
This is going to sit there for weeks or more.
New Orleans is the bowl where you have to pump water out, but where will they pump the water to? The devastation is just massive.
There are still people trapped in their attics. There are aunts and mothers and fathers floating through our city.
This is a very Catholic center of our country. It has the highest per capita number of prayer groups and the most Eucharistic adoration chapels in the country. The spiritual import of that if these people should scatter will be significant.
It's also called a center of sin.
Yes. There are many who will say this is a judgment from God. That comes from people who have a misunderstanding of what New Orleans is.
Mardi Gras is not New Orleans. The sacred and the profane march lockstep in New Orleans. Some of the holiest people in the world live in that city. I can't imagine it is a judgment. If it is, God's aim is off. He drowned all the good areas — East New Orleans, Lakeview, Metairie. The French Quarter is five feet above sea level. It will most likely survive.
I understand your grandfather lost his restaurant?
Yes, the restaurant, Tony Angelo's, was one of the best-known local institutions. Frank Sinatra used to go there. My grandfather had been in the restaurant business for 50 years. The restaurant was lost when the 17th Street levee broke.
You were just set for the release of your biography on Mother Angelica. How will this impact the book's release?
The press releases for the book went out yesterday. When the media saw that I lived in New Orleans there was a feeding frenzy. I appeared on CNN and was scheduled to be on Larry King in two weeks, but they called asking if I could be on sooner.
The book comes out Sept. 6 and I start a 30-city tour. It's surreal, but at least I have work to go back to. A lot of my friends don't.
What are your thoughts as you watch the devastation on television?
I mourn for some of the things that are gone, but I have my family. Thank God, we're all together. I am the luckiest man from New Orleans.
I understand Mother Angelica's principle of living in the present moment. That's what helped her battle with her infirmities. I have a similar perspective.
I mourn for the city and the loss of this great Catholic cultural hub more than I mourn the loss of my home. New Orleans is a state of mind and a culture. I came back to New Orleans because I wanted my children to experience that liturgical culture.
What do you think you will do?
EWTN is going to give us a place to live in while we get back on our feet. There are pieces to be picked up, and we will have to make a decision about where we will go. I don't know if I could return and rebuild and place my family in that jeopardy again. In 18 years growing up, we never once evacuated.
Tim Drake writes from St. Joseph, Minnesota.
- Aug. 23-Sept. 5, 2015