Archbishop Aymond on Katrina Recovery: ‘The Work Is Not Finished’

The Crescent City’s shepherd reflects on the hurricane’s material and spiritual consequences, 10 years after it devastated his hometown.

Trees are seen blown over in front of St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans during Huricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005.
Trees are seen blown over in front of St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans during Huricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005. (photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

NEW ORLEANS — Ten years ago this week, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, displacing more than 1 million people. In New Orleans alone, more than 1,500 lives were lost related to the hurricane.

Although the Crescent City is still recovering from the devastation, the Catholic Church has seen a resurgence. Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans came back to his hometown as archbishop in 2009. In commemoration of Hurricane Katrina, the archbishop celebrated a Mass at St. Louis Cathedral on Aug. 23; and as a sign of recovery, and the work left to be done, a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that had been left in its damaged state since Katrina was restored.

EWTN anchor Raymond Arroyo, a New Orleans native, interviewed Archbishop Aymond on Aug. 4 at the archdiocesan chancery near Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans for The World Over special on Hurricane Katrina, which airs Aug. 27.

Here is the edited interview:

 

Archbishop, on Aug. 23, you will celebrate Mass to really commemorate the resurgence of the Church and the city and recovery from Katrina. There are the fingers of that statue of the Sacred Heart behind the cathedral that were lobbed off during the storm; they are being restored — why now?

My predecessor, Archbishop [Alfred] Hughes, said that he would leave the fingers off and not restore them as a sign of the recovery. And though we know that the recovery is not complete … it’s 10 years later that we do commemorate. And so we are restoring the fingers for two reasons: to give thanks and honor to those who allowed Jesus to use their hands to help us to recover and to rebuild; also to give thanks that God’s hands have helped us to rebuild, and we’re grateful to God.

But also to remember that for some people they are still rebuilding. The devastation is so great, and it’s not just the physical devastation, the devastation of house or business, but it’s also broken hearts, sorrow and grief that some people are experiencing. Almost 2,000 people died; their lives were taken. So, in my mind, the fingers also say, “The work is not finished,” and that we want Jesus to continue to use our hands and our hearts to do the final chapters that this recovery will bring about.

 

I want to take you back a little bit to when this happened in 2005. You are a New Orleans local boy, but you were not here at the time. You watched this unfold, though, and saw family and friends caught in the middle of this devastation. You thought what at the time?

I thought “devastation.” I looked at the television with just awe and amazement. It was very, very discouraging. Though I was not here, I watched it on TV. Also, my sister and her family and extended family and some of her friends were staying with me in Austin. So my house was full with lots of people.

And as I was watching it, I remember seeing the house [across the street from Notre Dame Seminary] that I was supposed to be living in before I left to go to Austin burned down. That was actually on the news. I saw the seminary where I worked for 19 years … you know, the waters just flooding through. Streets, areas of great historical value just completely flooded.

 

Yes. It seemed liked the end. It seemed like the end of the world.

And to hear the stories now. … What I find interesting is that, even though it’s 10 years later, when many people talk about the experience, it’s as if it happened yesterday. When they talk about losing their home, losing their belongings, losing a loved one … then the waters came up, and they saw bodies floating, they saw alligators in the water; and when you hear these things, you think to yourself [of] the trauma, and I truly believe that some are still in trauma.

Some have moved on; some have been healed, have rebuilt; some, I think, have not fully dealt with the trauma that has taken place.

And that’s where the Church needs to be there.

 

How has it changed this community spiritually? How has it changed the Church in New Orleans? Has that Katrina experience made it a more vibrant, responsive Church?

I think so, without a doubt. I think that Katrina, obviously, took the lives of people, many buildings, an infrastructure that we had. It’s taken all of that, but, as I like to say, it has not taken the faith of the people, and Katrina did not take away from us perseverance.

And that faith and perseverance has been very much present, and it was really the Catholic churches in many, many neighborhoods that were the first to open.

 

The anchor.

They were the ones that became the anchor. They were the ones who said, “God loves us; we must move on.” And, sometimes, people ask me all the time, “Well, where was Jesus in the midst of all this?” You know, “Did Jesus care?” And I always image in my own mind … this Jesus of love, walking in the floodwaters, with people in their attics as the water keeps coming up, and they don’t know if they are going to live, hanging on to trees, those who lost their lives; and I really see Jesus weeping, crying, very much compassionate to all that was taking place.

We were not abandoned, and so what I think has happened through the years is people have seen a fidelity of a God who said, “I will be with you always.” And they have seen the fidelity of a God who really has walked with them. And even those who have lost loved ones, have lost everything, they see a God who has helped them get though the most traumatic moment in their lives.

 

Archbishop, you have, now, 111 parishes here in the archdiocese; that’s down about 30 parishes, roughly. Was that due to economics, the state of those churches or schools or was that a function of where people were repopulating?

Sort of all of the above, but it was initiated by Katrina, because some of those areas it was known that they would not rebuild, and so those churches needed to be closed. With others, it was some [issue with] the population moving from one place to another; and others, you know, New Orleans is a place where, within a mile, you can have five churches. There was an Italian church and a Spanish church and the French church and the German church. And then you get to the point of saying, “Okay, these are all beautiful churches and, really, monuments, but we don’t worship that way anymore, and we don’t need all of these churches. And so, some of it was Katrina, but some of it was really looking at the lack of need or some of these ethnic churches, and also that the population has moved. I mean a lot of our population has moved to the suburban areas.

New Orleans is coming back, but, very much so, it’s probably about 90% back to population. The last statistics tell us that it’s almost the same it was right before Katrina, but a lot of people have moved to what we call the north shore, across Lake Pontchartrain and those communities; those Catholic communities are booming. And we’re building a church right now, but, also, we’re very well aware that in the next several years we may very well have to find another location for a church to be built on the north shore.

 

Tell me about the volunteerism we saw in the wake of Katrina. There were people from all over the United States, all over the world, who came in to help. Catholic Charities was really at the switching post of all of this, guiding more than 60,000 volunteers in the rebuilding efforts, and it goes on and on. Were you surprised, were you stunned by the continuance of this?

I was stunned by it, and Catholic Charities did heroic work. And very often, we forget that. And even right after the storm, I believe that, when the story was first told, Catholic Charities was not getting the credit that it deserved. Also, it was individual parishes that were trying to put together programs to invite people back. It was the individual parishes that were the first to bring the communities back.

But even today, as recent as three or four weeks ago, there was a group in town, from the East Coast, who was here to help in any way that they could; and they specifically said, [Let us know] “if there is anything we can do to continue to help rebuild after the Katrina incident, even though it was 10 years ago.” So there are still people coming back using their hands and their hearts, and that’s where I go back to the statue: The hands of Jesus were the hands of so many people, thousands upon thousands of people, together with our own local people, who have rebuilt this community.

 

On Katrina’s 10th anniversary, there are a lot of people — we hear them on the governmental level, some citizens, some national leaders — saying, “You know what? The Katrina thing is over; this is the period at the end of this story. It’s time to move on; the rebuilding is complete.” You would say what?

The building is not complete, and some people have not been able to move on. I still meet people with some regularity who still have horrific stories, painful stories to tell. They haven’t been able to move back to the area; they want to move back to the area … and all of those people [are hurting]. And that’s why I said, in the beginning: The hands of Jesus symbolize those who have been helped, but also those who still need the hand of Christ to reach out to them in charity.

 

What’s next for the archdiocese and for this city? What future do you see in this post-Katrina period?

I see a continued rebuilding, and I see it as an opportunity to continue to … be the faith-filled people that we are; to continue to be persevering, not to give up, not to be hopeless. The other thing, you know: All these are life issues. I mean, we had Katrina, which took human life and property and so forth, but, now, the great issues we have in our own city [are] murder and violence and racism; and because of that, I have asked us as a Church to recite at every Mass, every Sunday what we call the “Family Prayer”; and it’s asking God, through the intersession of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, who has helped us in times of war, disaster, pandemic and illness, to pray with us and to pray for us, that we can become a more peace-filled society.

And we also pray for those who have been affected by violence and racism and murder, because there are people [who suffer] … We have a Mass every year at the cathedral for those who have been victims and families who’ve had loved ones who have been victims of violence, who have lost loved ones in violence.

So, where do we move from here? We can continue to have faith and in some ways continue to commemorate and to thank God for the rebuilding that has happened; but in the midst of us and right in front of us is another challenge, and we have to meet that challenge with faith as well.

Raymond Arroyo is host of EWTN’s The World Over.

Tune in for the complete interview on The World Over at 8pm ET on EWTN.

Go to EWTN.com for the full schedule.