Remembering Hurricane Katrina ... Reflections From Those Who Served

The storm began as a cluster of unruly thunderstorms swirling over the Bahamas on August 23, 2005.  By the next day, it had strengthened enough to be christened with a name – Katrina – before hitting Florida on August 25 as a moderate Category 1 hurricane.  Katrina weakened after passing over Florida, downgraded to a tropical storm as it reemerged in the Gulf of Mexico, and if conditions were different, might have been a barely remembered footnote for the 2005 hurricane season.

But instead, Katrina stalled over the warm waters of the Gulf and strengthened, becoming a category 5 hurricane on August 26, before changing direction toward the central Gulf coast of the United States.  I was the territorial disaster coordinator at the time and remember turning on the television that morning and seeing the storm’s projected path.  “This is going to be bad,” I said to my wife.  “You say that about every storm,” she remarked from the couch; she’d been married to a “disaster-guy” for a very long time.  “But this time,” I said, “it’s going to be different.”

And it was.  Hurricane Katrina came ashore as a Category 3 hurricane with winds of more than 145 mph and driving a record storm surge of 27.8 feet into the Mississippi coast that reduced buildings to splinters and tossed the giant casino barges of Biloxi onto the shore like toy boats.  In Louisiana, the levee system breached catastrophically, flooding 80 percent of the city of New Orleans and most of the nearby parishes.   Officially, 1,836 people were killed and property damage exceeded $81 billion, nearly triple the financial losses from 1992’s Hurricane Andrew.

Ken Cavallero, who deployed from the Western Territory, recalled his first day on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where the storm surge was its worst, “I was standing on the coast – Highway 90 near what was Pass Christian, MS -- and looking at how everything that was … wasn’t anymore. Everything was gone.  All that was left was sand and debris.  I wondered what Noah must have thought after the flood and the world was wiped clean.”

In Louisiana, conditions were just as desperate.  Flood water pouring into the Big Easy surrounded The Salvation Army’s Center of Hope, where Majors Richard and Fay Brittle remained behind to care for some 300 people trapped in the city with nowhere else to go.  Without power, the temperature in the building quickly became stifling and the refugees were forced to break out the windows of the building for ventilation.  Eventually rescued by helicopter, Major Richard Brittle recalled being dropped off on a bridge over the I-10 freeway.  One of the first things the couple saw was a Salvation Army canteen.  “We are going to be alright now,” he told his wife.

Even before the storm struck, The Salvation Army had mobilized -- from Lawrenceville, GA, to Houston, TX and as far away as San Diego, CA -- to aid evacuees fleeing Katrina’s wrath.  With the storm ashore, The Salvation Army activated three teams – each a mix of leadership personnel, feeding units, and support vehicles -- that pushed into the hardest hit areas of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana from the east, west, and north.  These teams experienced extreme hardships as Bill Feist, the disaster director for the Alabama-Mississippi--Louisiana (ALM) Division at the time, recalled when he visited one of the first mobile feeding units to reach Biloxi, MS.  The canteen was crewed by Major August Pillsbury and a team of disaster workers.  Feist recalls, “It was serving in the parking lot of what had been our Biloxi Corps (now completely destroyed; it was a slab with part of a corner wall still standing).  It was hot, humid and miserable but the crew was working hard in a hot canteen, cooking (in 95 degree weather) and serving the survivors.  They had been there since the day before and had slept in their canteen at that spot the night before.”

Judith Hale, now the disaster services director in the National Capital & Virginia Division, started her relationship with The Salvation Army as a Katrina volunteer. "Our team flew into Jackson, MS and we drove down to Gulfport, MS,” she recalled.  “I spent fifteen years in law enforcement and been in many places where extreme poverty is the norm, but nothing could prepare me for what I saw as we got closer and closer to Gulfport.  I just remember thinking; ‘This is bad; it can't get much worse than this.’ But I was continuously wrong.  By the time we got to our assigned service site, we all felt like we were on another planet.  After one day of service, I was totally hooked on the mission of The Salvation Army."


In Jackson, MS, an area command team for the disaster operation was established at Divisional Headquarters.  Even here, Katrina’s impact was felt.  As Bill Feist recalled, “When Katrina made landfall, it didn't affect just the central Gulf Coast. It also struck well inland.  It was still a Category 2 hurricane when it came through Jackson, MS, some 150 miles away.  It knocked out all of the power for several days in Jackson, MS.  That meant that our Command Post, which was set up in the Chapel at DHQ was without power for about 5 days.  There were no lights.  No air conditioning.  No telephones.  Nothing!”

Despite the adverse conditions, The Salvation Army quickly began coordinating resources to the three relief teams operating on the Gulf Coast.  Major Marshall Gesner was one of the officers who led this team, “One of the impressions that remains with me is the spirit of willingness to do "whatever it takes" from those actually involved in the response and later recoveries, and particularly as it relates to The Salvation Army effort at all levels, from the crew chief on a canteen to the territorial commander.  There always seemed to be an answer and response … even to major needs.  I was very conscious of God's blessing on our efforts and am thankful for that and the contributions of all who served.”

The Salvation Army activated 178 canteens and 11 field kitchens and, working in partnership with Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, delivered 13.8 million meals, sandwiches, snacks, and drinks.  All four U.S. territories and the Canada & Bermuda territory contributed personnel to the relief effort and, because the storm had devastated Salvation Army facilities in Biloxi, Gulfport, New Orleans, Pascagoula, and New Orleans, the disaster operation worked from temporary facilities.  In Mississippi, an 182,000 square foot warehouse was donated and two giant ‘Sprung’ tents set-up.  One tent – which would become the heart of The Salvation Army’s long-term recovery efforts in Mississippi, was erected on Biloxi’s historic Yankie Stadium property.  The stadium was later converted into a “Volunteer Village” to house reconstruction teams, before it was eventually restored as a ballfield when the Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center opened on the same site.

In New Orleans, which remained flooded for weeks after the storm, The Salvation Army leap-frogged ever closer to the beleaguered city, sending canteens and emotional and spiritual caregivers ever forward to minister to those in need.  Setting up first in Baton Rouge, then on to a warehouse and base camp in Laplace, LA, and finally to the ARC Family Store in New Orleans proper.  The family store was the first Salvation Army facility to be cleaned and recovered from muck of the flood waters, and for many months, served as a combination command post and assistance center within the city. 

Mike Patterson of the North & South Carolina Division, and his sister Carol, a Canadian, volunteered to spend their Christmas vacation in New Orleans, working from that family store as caseworkers.  While the Christmas assistance The Salvation Army offered helped many, it was the ‘listening ear’ of the disaster workers that seemed to matter most to survivors.  As Carol recalled, "’In the midst of the storm’ was a phrase I heard often as the people of New Orleans shared their stories with me.  As they spoke, it became clear that the storm they were speaking about was the one that came long after the winds and the rains had stopped ... the storm of emotion ... the storm of daily life. It was our prayer that we could offer light into this darkness, to bring peace in the storm, hope for a new day.”

For Major Rob Vincent, who served for years as the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s Disaster Recovery Commander, that first Christmas after Katrina remains one of his fondest memories.  The Salvation Army’s holiday work – giving toys and food to needy families – has long been a hallmark of the church’s ministry and, after Katrina, more families than ever needed the organization’s help.  But with very little time, the traditional Salvation Army Christmas registration and toy drive seemed impossible.  So Vincent and his team concocted the wild notion to do a drive-thru distribution center – parents popping open the trunks of their cars as they rolled-up to a Salvation Army site and eager volunteers stuffing it with toys and other goods.  Vincent’s crew served some 57,000 people in just 11 days from 4 locations.   “Had to be the largest Christmas on record,” Vincent remembered, “And hopefully, my first and only drive-thru Christmas. It was an experience that has changed my family and myself forever.”

The road to recovery for these ravaged coastal communities was, perhaps, longer than most people would have ever expected; for many -- even ten years later – that journey may not yet be complete.  And even before the storm, there were many along the Gulf Coast that struggled to survive.  The disaster only made conditions worse.  Christie Sutton, who came to The Salvation Army as a volunteer and later became a long-term recovery employee in New Orleans, described the lingering effects of the storm. “Six months in, I was surprised one day when a restaurant owner said to me that he couldn't feel grateful yet that his restaurant had survived the storm.  He still lived in fear of dying a ‘slow Katrina death’ -- being one of the businesses spared in the immediate aftermath, but after months or years of economic struggle, would die a slow painful death, eventually forced to close its doors.  It was heartbreaking, and in that moment – even though I came to New Orleans as a stranger -- I knew I was no longer an outsider or guest.  In my heart, I prayed for my town, my neighborhood, my restaurant.  Ten years later, this restaurant -- in the heart of the New Orleans Garden District -- is still thriving.  And because of the disaster, whenever I visit, I come as a ‘local’ in my heart.”

The Salvation Army’s mission has always been to lift people out of the worst conditions – poverty, addiction, hopelessness – and The Salvation Army’s long-term disaster recovery programs, such as the Envirenew Resilience project initiated by Major Ethan Frizzel and Lindsay Jonker, not only sought to help neighborhoods rebuild, but to help break the cycle of poverty that was fundamental to so many disaster survivors’ struggles.  Just as importantly, The Salvation Army worked diligently to restore its basic social services programs across the Gulf Coast – reopening homeless shelters, community centers, children’s programs, and church services – which had been essential lifelines for those in need even before Katrina’s fury.  The Salvation Army had had a proud history of serving the Gulf coastal communities long before Katrina’s landfall and the commitment to stay – to rebuild better and stronger – was cornerstone to the organization’s overall recovery plan.  Katrina would not keep The Salvation Army away from the people who needed us.

Major John Jordan was the Community Relations & Development Secretary at the time Katrina struck and supervisor for The Salvation Army’s disaster relief program.  Ten years after the storm, he reflected, “What started as a possibility, became a probability, and concluded as a horrid reality. Buildings were obliterated, bridges broken, levees split asunder. It was in so many ways, ‘the worst of times.’  And yet The Salvation Army responded with promptness, competence, determination, daring, and Christian love. The results were amazing. People were encouraged, homes rebuilt, communities kept together, lives literally saved.  Hurricane Katrina did indeed represent ‘the worst of times,’ yet, in terms of serving hurting people in their time of greatest need and in the name of Jesus Christ, Katrina and its aftermath was also ‘the best of times.’  Never have I been prouder to be a Salvationist!”

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