Friday, June 4, 2010

Katrina - The Wrath of God?

My Five-year Eyewitness  Retrospective

The fire chief stopped me in the parking lot of Marvin United Methodist Church in Florence, Mississippi. I was walking from my office to the sanctuary for morning worship. It was Sunday, August 28, 2005, the day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall near the Louisiana / Mississippi State line. The chief walked up to me, shook my hand, and made a simple request. He asked me to prepare my congregation for “a Camille-like event.”

I was not a resident of Mississippi in 1969 for Hurricane Camille, but locals talked of 100-mph winds. Trees down. No power. No water. And fatalities. What could equal Camille? The suggestion was unthinkable.

I gave the chief a hard stare. “Camille-like,” I said.

“Yes, sir,” he said, his voice flat, his eyes already tired. I was looking at a man who knew he was not going to sleep much for a few weeks. I was not sure I believed him, but I agreed to make the announcement.

“What else should I tell them?” I asked him.

I listened to Hurricane Katrina Preparations 101. Anything outside that could become a projectile should be brought inside. Lots of water and non-perishable food items. Lots of batteries for radios and flashlights. Once she hits, stay home. Do not drive. Prepare for weeks without water and electricity.

Projectiles? Weeks?

“Do we need to get the gym ready?” I asked. I knew the church gym had been used as a shelter during previous hurricane evacuations. I knew that the church could organize quickly to make that happen, if needed.

“No,” he said. “Send anyone who stops here up to Richland High School. Don’t let anybody stay here. Your gym roof is not designed to handle 90 mile-per-hour sustained winds.” How he knew that, I do not know. But the prospect of 90 mile-per-hour sustained winds peeling the roof off of the gym left me dumbfounded. That it might happen tomorrow, within twenty-four hours, was inconceivable.

The sun was already radiating off the asphalt as I thanked the chief and shook his hand again. He drove away, and I entered the sanctuary to make the announcement. When I shared with them that the fire chief had just come by the church to ask me to tell them to expect “a Camille-like event,” they gasped and fell silent. My blood ran cold. I did not experience Camille firsthand, but these people did. They knew what those words meant. That is when I realized that something terrifying was out there, and that she might be coming for us, for real.

After worship, while my son and I secured our lawn chairs and such in the garage, my wife and my daughters moved everything in the refrigerator to the deep freezer. Then we filled gallon milk jugs with water and packed the deep freezer to the top. We had already stocked up on batteries and candles. The propane tanks were ready for cooking. We did everything we knew to do. All that was left was to hurry up and wait.

Katrina Arrives

We awoke to wind and rain. It could have been any summer rainstorm, I told myself. I went on the front porch and thought about the coast and New Orleans. Katrina had just made landfall, the TV said. People are fighting for their lives, I thought. God, please help them.

The winds picked up throughout the morning. Looking back, things went in slow motion, but happened so fast. The sky opened and the yard became a lake. A vicious gust scooted a long black snake like a surfer across our flooded front lawn. Limbs cracked and thudded with such frequency that it reminded me of fireworks. More than anything, I was awed by the sustained hiss of the leaves in the trees combined with the sustained howl of the wind. Hours. That is what stunned me. Hours of howl and hiss unrelenting. Add explosions of thunder. And inside the house, add the low drone from the sound of the horizontal deluge driving against the roof. Hour after hour, it made you yearn for just a few seconds of sweet silence.

When the power failed, we huddled in the darkened den, candles were lit in windowless bathrooms, lightning strobed, and we almost yelled at times to hear one another over the roar against the roof and windows.

Then we napped. I am not kidding. I do not understand it even now. We could not keep our eyes open. It must have been Katrina’s low barometric pressure. We all drifted off, like Jesus asleep in the stern of a sinking boat. Then Katrina woke us up.

The large hardwood trees on the far side of the front lawn moved in ways I have never seen trees move. I stepped out onto the front porch with my family at the height of the storm. Because our front porch faced south, and because Katrina’s wrap-around winds were out of the north, the house blocked the storm enough that we could venture out to meet a killer face to face. That moment, for me, is frozen in time. Those treetops resembled blades of grass beneath a weed eater, the way they whipped, trembled and lay down and shattered. Pines snapped at the taproot and fell across the driveway. White siding ripped off the side of the church across the street and flew away. We went back inside.

By the time the sun set, the wind had eased but the rain still poured. We were able to open windows and get some air circulating. We lay awake pondering the fate of people we could not reach by phone, and praying for anyone south and east of us. Hattiesburg. Laurel. Meridian. And God help the people on the coast. The darkness was complete even with my eyes open. We tossed and dozed and wondered.

A New Day Dawns

Sunrise greeted us with new sounds, the combination of which I had never heard before. Chainsaws, sirens, helicopters and planes. I did not know it yet, but those four sounds would be constant for nearly a week. It may not be so in most areas of Los Angeles, but in Florence, Mississippi, guys have chainsaws. And we needed every one of them. There was not a single second during days following Katrina when you could walk outside and not hear chainsaws, sirens, helicopters and planes. It reminded me, though by stark contrast, of the week following the events of September 11, 2001, when the skies were eerily empty and silent.

The gym roof survived, but no street in our town was passable the day after Katrina. Yes, 150 miles from the coast, lucky because we were on the “weak” western side of the storm, and still there was not a passable street in Florence. Trees, utility poles and downed power lines blocked every road. No power. No water. No way out. And thankfully, we found out later, no fatalities in our community.

Our one-acre yard was a jungle of fallen trees and limbs. None hit our house because none were near the house. Many in town were not so lucky. They rode out Katrina with trees in their kitchens. A pastor I know and his family of six rode out the storm sharing their living and sleeping quarters with four huge pines. No one was hurt.

There is no TV without electrical power, of course, so for the first few days, we had to imagine the devastation in places like Waveland (photo left) and Pass Christian, communities essentially wiped from the map by a thirty-foot storm surge and 130 mile-per-hour winds. We tried to see New Orleans, the Big Easy, under water in our mind’s eyes as the radio DJs described the failing levees, the rising water and the floating bodies. It was as if we were suddenly in a third-world country, cut off, and clinging to civilization via transistors and Duracells.

We were fortunate. Our house, being downtown, got water and power back in four days. It seemed a long time. But friends did not have water and power for over two sweaty, stressful weeks. My best friend was one of those. He and his wife rode out the storm and its long aftermath with a newborn. You did what you had to do.

Though we had power, the cable TV was not back up. Five days after the storm, though people around the world knew what the coast and New Orleans looked like, we did not. We wanted to see for ourselves. So, when my wife and I had to run a truckload of supplies up to the Army airfield in Jackson, we took the opportunity to go to Ruby Tuesday’s restaurant in Ridgeland for lunch. There was a TV behind the bar, and we walked up and stood transfixed with others. We held one another and wept. “No,” we both said again and again. No mental image prepared us for the reality of Katrina’s devastation. Our beautiful coast was eradicated and our beloved New Orleans (above pic) had drowned.

Why Did It Happen?

A few weeks after Katrina, my first book came out. I went to the Florence, Mississippi, Post Office to mail a copy to a friend. I got a mailer and waited in line. A man came in behind me and took notice of the title of my book, Jesus Unplugged. He commented to me about it and introduced himself as a pastor. He was a 140-pound, elderly African American.

“The Lord sent Katrina to New Orleans as a punishment,” he said, “for the sins going on in that sinful place.”

“I don’t believe that,” I said, aware that people were starting to listen.

“No doubt about it,” he said, not seeming to realize that I had just disagreed with him. “The Lord got those sinners.” I turned to face him.

“You don’t really believe Jesus sent Katrina to punish New Orleans, do you?” I asked.

“Yes, sir, I do! Don’t you?”

Now every ear in the Post Office line was keyed in on two pastors who were getting into an argument about God. Please know that I did not wake up that morning and plan to have a public theological debate in a post office, but this man was speaking so that all could hear, and I guess I was just tired of hearing it. There were TV preachers saying essentially the same thing. I was hearing it on the street. I was mad. But still, I managed to smile as I turned and looked him in the eye.

“If God wanted to kill the sinners in New Orleans, why didn’t Bourbon Street flood? Why did he spare the worst street in the city?”

Because he had no reply, some in the line laughed nervously. I felt bad. I did not want a public theological debate, and I did not mean to embarrass the man or myself, though I may have succeeded in accomplishing both. But it bothers me when people say things like that. That theology (bad things happen to people because of the bad things they did) is not Christian. My fellow pastor in the post office was describing how karma works, not the kingdom of God.

What Did Jesus Say?

I was thinking about the man who interrupted Jesus while he was teaching to report an atrocity: Pilate’s men had killed Galileans in worship (Luke 13). Jesus turned to the crowd and asked, essentially, Do you think the Galileans deserved this because they were worse sinners than other Galileans? (Galileans had a reputation as brigands in the day.) Do you think this was God’s punishment? Then Jesus answered his own question with an unambiguous, “No!”

Immediately Jesus brought up another example—the eighteen Judean workers who were crushed by a falling tower near the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem. Did they deserve it?, he asked the crowd. Was this God’s punishment? (First century historian Josephus refers to an aqueduct being constructed by money forcibly taken from the temple treasury. Workers there may have been hated for taking pay that was “stolen from God.” Their deaths could have been interpreted by some as God’s retributive justice.) Again, Jesus shouts, “No!”

Jesus concludes both of these “No’s” with a call for everyone in the crowd to repent. The word repent, metanoeo, means “change-mind.” Change your mind about what? Change your mind that God works like that! Jesus rejected karma. “No!” he said. Twice. Do not think like that about my heavenly Father. And do not judge people who experience misfortune. That is what I hear him saying. Then he warned everyone in the crowd. If you keep thinking like that, then it applies to you, too. You will have to consider your misfortune as God’s retribution. You will have to condemn yourself.

Putting aside some unsightly “Christian” interpretations of Katrina as God’s punishment for sin, I want to affirm the compassion and generosity of Christians following the storm. For that matter, the whole world chipped in on the recovery. Our disaster was that huge. It is encouraging to know that in the face of tragedy, people really do come together and try to help. A lot of people worked very hard, not just in the days following the storm, but month after month, year after year, really, to help the coast recover. The recovery goes on even now, five years later.

I hesitate to mention one final thing, because I do not want to sound trite. But I noticed something in Mississippi during the last five years that, to me, is a testimony to Katrina’s enduring power. I noticed something peculiar in Mississippians’ conversations about that epic storm, now five years past. As I listened to Mississippians talk and remember together, sometimes when someone decided to make the inevitable comparisons between Katrina and the horrible, deadly 1969 hurricane, Camille, guess what? As one man attempted to make the comparison, he suddenly found that he could not bring the name “Camille” to mind.

“I never thought I’d see anything worse than… Oh, what was the name of that awful 1969 storm?” he asked.

“Camille,” someone reminded him.

I noticed this happening a lot. Imagine it! Imagine how bad a storm would have to be, in the minds of fifty-plus-year-old Mississippians, for it to have eclipsed the name, if not the memory, of Hurricane Camille.

Though I was an eleven-year-old boy some 500 miles away in Georgia when Camille hit Mississippi in 1969, just five years ago I personally witnessed a measure of Hurricane Katrina’s power. But in these last five years, I also personally witnessed Katrina’s continuing power—the power to do the impossible for anyone who survived the viciousness of “that awful 1969 storm.” Katrina was making Mississippians forget the name “Camille.”

NOTE: August 29, 2010 is the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Nearly 2,000 people lost their lives. Nearly 100 were listed as John or Jane Doe. Katrina was the fifth deadliest Atlantic storm. At her peak, she was the sixth most powerful Atlantic hurricane. And Katrina was the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history.

For more evangelical bad behavior:
Hell House
The Prosperity Gospel: God In a Box
The Christian Ambush: A True Story
Don't You Hate Christian Tracts?

Click for published article with great layout: Katrina - the Wrath of God?