Catholics Continue to Aid Victims of Hurricane Laura
The aftermath of the strong storm shows much work continues to rebuild property and secure lives and livelihoods.
Hurricane Laura made landfall in the Diocese of Lake Charles, Louisiana, in the early morning hours of Aug. 27. Its 150 mph winds seriously damaged and destroyed homes and businesses, uprooted trees and downed power lines, and it has been described as the worst storm to hit the state in recorded history.
Residents were forewarned, and most left the area for the duration of the storm; hence, there was little loss of human life, but the community still faces a long period of rebuilding. Local Catholic leaders appealed for aid to help the battered region rebuild, a process which could take many years.
Sister Miriam MacLean serves as director of Catholic Charities of Southwest Louisiana, which serves the Lake Charles Diocese. She has lived in Lake Charles for two years as part of a community of five Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan. She evacuated during the storm, but when she returned, she was astonished by what she saw.
“It was unbelievable,” she told the Register. “The city had been devastated. Debris was everywhere: signs down, telephone poles down, trees down.”
While her own St. Hubert’s Convent building still stood, “the building across the street had crumbled to the ground. Its roof is gone, as are most of its brick walls. I’d say only a quarter of it remains. It’s the same all over the city. Doors, roofs and walls are gone, and you can see the insides of buildings everywhere.”
Fallen trees blocked the sisters’ path to their convent when they returned hours after the storm, but a local diocesan priest, Father Joseph Caraway, used a chainsaw to create a path to the convent before heading off into the neighborhood to distribute emergency relief. The Catholic Charities building where Sister Miriam works 2 miles away also survived, but the buildings around it, she said, are “totally devastated.”
Six of 39 Parishes Totally Destroyed
The Diocese of Lake Charles reports that six of its 39 parish churches have been totally destroyed, with another dozen severely damaged. The diocese’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which had finished a major renovation in 2019, had major roof damage and was without electricity. The cathedral’s grounds were covered by fallen trees; bulldozers had to cut a path so that Bishop Glen John Provost could reach his house.
Christ the King parish was among the hardest hit Lake Charles parishes, reported Father Rojo Koonathan, the pastor. The church had extensive roof and water damage, and its pews will have to be replaced. The parish office, hall and CCD classrooms are a total loss. Masses for the parish are currently being celebrated at a neighboring parish.
Father Koonathan had initially intended to stay in the rectory during the storm, but left at the last minute when he heard that it would reach Category 4-level status or more. He stayed the night in a parish in the less affected north end of the diocese, but “even there it was a terrible, sleepless night.” When he returned the following day, “It was heartbreaking.”
He lived in the parish rectory for the next two weeks without power or water. Work has begun rebuilding the parish, but “it will be a long process.”
Priest Displaced, Schools Closed
One-third of the diocese’s priests in active ministry were displaced, and five of its six Catholic schools had to temporarily close. One of the hardest hit was St. Louis Catholic High School, the only Catholic high school in the diocese, which saw its administration building roof blown off, windows blown out and major damage to its commons area, cafeteria, gymnasium and storage facilities.
Other Catholic facilities, such as three homes of the Nigerian nuns of the Daughters of Mary, Mother of Mercy, are uninhabitable. The chancery office is closed, as its roof suffered severe damage and is covered by a tarp.
Catholic Charities Jumped Into Action
The day following the storm, Catholic Charities jumped into action, said Sister Miriam. Catholic Charities gathered and began distributing 420 pallets of supplies, including food and water, tarps, toiletries and cleaning supplies. Lay volunteers were slow to come, so local priests, religious and even Bishop Provost used forklifts to load supplies into trucks that were driven to parish distribution sites around the community and engaged in other relief efforts. Priority was given to parishes serving poorer communities and to rural areas which might be overlooked by rescuers.
Neighboring dioceses and Catholic Charities organizations have also joined in the effort to help victims.
Ben Broussard of Catholic Charities of Acadiana in Lafayette, Louisiana, noted that his organization was operating in “lockstep” with Catholic Charities of Southwest Louisiana. He noted that in addition to fallen trees and structural damage caused by the winds, a storm surge of up to 20 miles inland has left the area covered in mud and marsh grass. He noted that Catholic Charities’ current focus is removing fallen trees from roadways and putting tarps up in place of missing and damaged roofs.
As he told the Register, “The damage is so extensive, it is too much for our local contractors to do alone.”
Sister Miriam is appealing for donations to fund relief and rebuilding efforts, asking the public to make donations to the Diocese of Lake Charles’ Hurricane Laura relief fund.
Broussard echoed the need for donations, as he believes the recovery will take up to a decade, and insurance will not cover all costs, adding that many in the region will have difficulty having access to the resources they need to rebuild. As Broussard said, “Even a small amount of money can help people get their roof back on, get the muck out of their homes and replace their floors.”
Sister Miriam is grateful for the donations that have already come in. “It’s been beautiful to see the tremendous outpouring of support by the Catholic community already, both from other dioceses in Louisiana and Texas, as well as nationally. And there is certainly a pressing need.”