Lessons from the Eye of the Storm

Robert R. Brown, Slidell, Louisiana, USA

Precious Seed

Hurricane Katrina’s wrath reveals God’s grace!

August 29, 2005, will be one of those days that will live in the memories of men and women all over the world and for sure all over the Gulf Coast of the USA! But for a small, insignificant group of Christians in South-east Louisiana, and Slidell in particular, it has become the pivotal day of our lives! We, along with our families, our town, and our culture will probably never be the same again.

I talked to a man a few months ago who said, ‘I hear things are getting back to normal down there’. I responded, ‘Well, the home next to mine hasn’t been touched since the storm and is a growing pile of mould collapsing into itself; the home next door, on the other side, will soon begin having its new brick walls put up; and the home across the street has been bulldozed and they have just begun rebuilding it! Approximately 30% to 50% of the area’s population is gone; about 50% of the city of New Orleans still doesn’t have power; the murder rate is twice that of Detroit, Michigan; and the last Parish of the four most affected finally got a complete water service only last week . . . I guess it depends on how you define “normal’’’. . . we laughed together!

Just before coming ashore, the storm took a last minute jog to the East, sparing New Orleans a direct hit, but bringing the eye of the storm directly over lower Plaquemine Parish and Slidell. The eastern half of the hurricane, the part called ‘the dangerous semi-circle’, hit from Slidell all the way to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. This brought a 26-foot wall of water from Lake Pontchartrain over Slidell and a 34-foot surge from the Gulf of Mexico over the Gulf Coast causing roughly 100 miles of nearly total destruction. Approximately 80% of Slidell was totally destroyed or severely damaged. The areas to the West were thankfully spared most of that damage. However, after the storm passed, the leftover surge ‘overtopped’ the levees of New Orleans flooding over half the city for weeks. People were trapped in attics and on roofs. Many drowned. Bodies are still being found. The believers in the Slidell assembly incurred the most severe damage among the assemblies, and, being my home assembly, it was where I was the most intimately involved in the recovery efforts. We had three families who lost their homes, their vehicles and nearly everything they owned. Two other families lost everything but the outer shell of their homes and two more families lost everything in their homes up to about half the height of the walls. Six homes had to be totally refurnished. Many others suffered lesser damage but almost everyone suffered roof and structural damage to some degree.

My wife JoAnne and I were able to get back into Slidell on the Saturday after the storm and found a city virtually reduced to survival conditions! The next morning two men arrived who had driven a truck nonstop all the way from an assembly in Pennsylvania. They were the first help to come in. They arrived with their precious cargo of gasoline, food, generators, chain saws and tools. They unloaded, we hugged, we wept, we took a few pictures and they headed back for home. This began a stream of over 160 men who came to help us, from all over North America, over the next fourteen months. These ‘everyday heroes’ paid their own way and brought their own living essentials. We could only provide minimal shelter . . . a place on the floor or a pew, the floor in the attic or a small room to sleep in. Most days the workers met at the Chapel around 7 a.m. for prayer and a small breakfast. Lunch usually consisted of a pre-packed ready meal and a bottle of water, or possibly a Red Cross mobile truck meal when such could be found. Most days work ended at about 5-7 p.m. with a communal meal together for workers and residents. Many of these workers brought materials with them that were unavailable in the local area including gasoline and sheetrock. Eventually we had to buy truckloads of sheetrock, doors, tiles and shingles, buckets of nails and screws, huge amounts of pipe, wire, trim, saw blades, construction knives and blades! We also bought numerous boilers, air conditioners, power panels, wood and plywood.

All this manpower and material contributed to the replacement of three vehicles, four homes and an apartment. We almost totally rebuilt five other homes. Prior to being rebuilt, each of these homes had to be stripped. This involved the removal of all porous materials like flooring, furniture, and furnishings. After removing all the sheetrock and insulation to open up the walls and other cavities these could then be pressure washed, disinfected and dried. This process reduced the homes to studs, concrete and bricks before reconstruction could begin. Each home was then rebuilt from the slab and studs up. We also repaired or totally re-roofed eleven homes plus the assembly Chapel, day care and fellowship hall and rebuilt two brick walls in homes crushed by falling trees. The Chapel had to be stripped, gutted and rebuilt up to four feet. Numberless trees had to be lifted off buildings with a crane. These then needed to be cut up and hauled out and piled on the curb. Most of the resultant craters remain today still to be filled whenever we can get around to it. In addition to working on our own homes, volunteers and the local assembly families reached out to neighbours and friends helping them with their repairs providing the ‘Light of Christ’ by word and deed. Cases of Bibles and tracts were and still are being given out. Daily runs were made by the sisters to bring people into shop at the Chapel’s fellowship hall, which doubled as an aid station. Two to three times a week supplies were brought in from the camp to re-supply this local storehouse. These supplies included food, clothing, and other daily necessities of life as well as a healthy dose of explanations of the loving Lord who so exceeding abundantly was supplying all our and their daily needs free of charge!

When life is reduced to survival conditions, discussions of life and death, eternity and God seem to become very normal subjects! Praise the Lord! The gospel was shared numerous times a day as the men worked, and helped, and earned the right to be heard! Eternity will show the fruit of these works and words. We trust that the lives of countless people were changed as they came to know Christ as a result of Hurricane Katrina! Amongst the many that came were three young people, all well qualified in construction trades and spent a week doing construction work. They also helped cleaning up the Chapel grounds in unbearable heat so that we could pass our Louisiana State inspection and be one of the first schools and day cares to open in our town after the hurricane. Out of one thousand day care centres in New Orleans prior to Katrina, there were only fifty left afterwards. Getting ours open and operating provided a sense of normality for traumatized children and enabled parents to return and begin work on their homes knowing that their children were safe and being taken care of. An 18-year-old young man from Wisconsin quit his job and came to help. He stayed nearly a year, trusting the Lord to provide for his daily needs, and was never disappointed!

Today the general New Orleans and Gulf Coast areas are still in bad shape, and in critical need of a huge amount of help! This needs to be a particular focus of prayer for anyone who has an interest in the area! St. Tammany Parish where we live (we have Parishes instead of Counties) and Slidell in particular are way ahead of most of the area in returning to normal. The believers in the assembly here in Slidell are way ahead of most the other residents of Slidell. We’re very thankful that all our homes are nearly finished and all but one of our families is back into their own reconstructed homes or replacement ones! Our families are largely getting back to ‘normal’, and life is definitely improving!

We are thankful to the Lord and to you, His people, for where we stand today! We are a new and better people for the experience having learned many, huge and overwhelming lessons as we have gone through the tragedy of Katrina. The greatest of these lessons is that our incredible God is beyond all description He can be wholly trusted even when things look totally beyond hope! He has His way in the whirlwind and can do exceeding abundantly, above all that we could possibly ask or think, and in the trials of life He makes Himself even more tangible and evident in our lives than at other times! All this we have always known intellectually, but now we know it by experience! It doesn’t just say it in the Book; it is real in our lives! We have all come to know Him better and love Him more!