In the middle of the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans stands a small pink church, Carver Desire Baptist. On every first floor wall of the church, about 8 feet above the floor, is a brown stain showing where Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters stood for more than two weeks in August 2005. Our church sent numerous teams to New Orleans over the next several years to help Carver Desire’s members reclaim their neighborhood for Jesus Christ. My 12-year-old son and I were blessed to serve on one of the trips in March 2006, almost seven months after the storm.
I was not prepared for what I saw. We came to New Orleans on I-55 south, and began heading east on I-10 about 20 miles west of the city. The vestiges of Katrina started to appear almost imperceptibly, with the occasional building having second-story windows missing or a tarp over its roof. Then we began seeing the sparkling white FEMA trailers, at first just one, then a few, and as we headed east, we began to see entire neighborhoods with an identical trailer in each driveway. As we neared downtown, we began seeing boats and disabled cars stranded in the median of the highway. Downtown, modern skyscrapers had numerous boarded-up windows as high as 15 stories off the ground. In the Upper Ninth Ward, the devastation reached war zone proportions. Houses moved off foundations. Vehicles perched in trees. And everywhere, the eerie quiet of desertion.
Perhaps the most haunting aspect of post-Katrina New Orleans were the markings on the abandoned houses, left after the Urban Search and Rescue teams completed their work. The markings communicated the date and time that searchers left the house, whether there are any specific hazards in the house (instability, rats, etc.), and at the bottom of the markings, an indication of whether searchers found bodies of humans or pets on the property. To a wary volunteer from Kansas, the markings were almost otherworldly. The images are burned in my mind.
The scope of the destruction was difficult to comprehend. My 12-year-old son described it as “weird and scary.” Personally, I couldn’t believe that in America, so little cleanup had been done in the seven months since the storm. Even more difficult to fathom was how our group of 30 people could make any difference in the lives of the residents of the Upper Ninth. Still, our team spent several days cleaning out homes, removing debris and drywall down to the studs so they could receive a bleach wash and the long process of rebuilding could begin. During that work, I experienced sights and smells that will forever take me back there. The scent of a certain brand of laundry detergent, in my mind, is the smell of disarray. And it was on this trip when I learned what happens when a refrigerator full of food is flooded with ocean water and left to sit for seven months. What comes out is not pretty.
So why did our group travel all the way to New Orleans to serve the people of the Upper Ninth? Pastor James Willis of Carver Desire Baptist Church said it best: “What you’re doing here is giving folks hope. When people look at their devastated homes, full of damaged furniture and moldy walls, it appears to be overwhelming to them. However, when the debris is removed and only the stud walls remain, people can start to see that their homes can be rebuilt again. They can see that it is actually possible for their lives to one day be put back together.”
Hope. How many times my wife and I have told our now-grown children that, because of our faith in Jesus Christ, we always have hope because Christ died for us and rose again. Paul explained it this way is Romans 5:2-7: “And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” And just as my anxious children need to be reminded of that hope, the good people in the Upper Ninth Ward needed a reminder as well. I’m thankful that God allowed me and my son to join in his work sharing that hope, for a week in the spring of 2006.