On Sept. 2, after Hurricane Isaac finished its sluggish trek across the Gulf States, David Aguillard, head of Catholic Charities Baton Rouge, La., arrived at Holy Rosary Parish, halfway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. 

hurricane relief efforts
Catholic Charities Baton Rouge volunteer Ralph Borne hands Moise Oubre fresh fruit for Dorrie Dicharry outside her flooded home in Lutcher, La. Photo by Darlene Aguillard

Armed with disaster response equipment, food and supply kits — and getting around with his staff in trucks and supply trailers that Catholic Charities grants provided after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — Aguillard took a call from a pastor nearby, Father Jason Palermo, that his team should continue on to St. Stephen Martyr Parish in Maurepas, La.  

Aguillard split his team in two, deploying one person to assess the situation while the rest stayed behind and recruited 30 Holy Rosary volunteers to help out their waterlogged neighbors. In that region bordering the swamps of nearby Lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas — where some believe much of the storm’s worst flooding occurred as a result of the new storm surge protection measures built around New Orleans after Katrina — the Catholic Charities team found homes isolated by severe flooding caused by Isaac. 

Residents who had not already evacuated or who had no access to boats or suitable trucks were grateful to lay eyes on the volunteers. “The spirit of the people was extraordinarily thankful. Some burst into tears and hugged us repeatedly, said goodbye and then they would hug us again,” said Aguillard. 

The agency hosted distribution sites in Ponchatoula, Maurepas and Lutcher — the hardest-hit areas of the diocese. At these sites, victims received food kits, fresh fruit, cleaning supplies, diapers, clothes, water and mosquito repellent. 

Overlooked Disaster
The Republican National Convention in Tampa, along with a generally busy news cycle last month, meant many Americans may have assumed Hurricane Isaac’s Aug. 28 landfall in the Gulf states did only minor harm. 
“We still have 500 people living in shelters and especially from Plaquemines Parish (near New Orleans), who will be in shelters another 30 days,” said Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA.
“With the evacuation still in place there, these people will need shelter, food, clothing and clean underwear — often at a total cost of about $300 a day. They did not expect this to last that long,” Father Snyder said.
He added that a national online appeal Catholic Charities announced at the time of Isaac did not gain substantial traction. But it is telling how many government FEMA applications have been received — more than 8,000 in Mississippi and 133,000 in Louisiana.
Now comes the cleanup, recovery and even post-trauma counseling and case management work. There may be individual diocesan collections in the region, as well as parish healing services.
And just because the area has been hit by storms like Katrina doesn’t mean residents are immune to the effects of tragedy.

“In Katrina we sat back and waited for the needs to come to us, and [in Isaac] we monitored the situation [and] we went to the areas most in need of assistance,” he said. “In this storm, it was outlying areas close to rivers with one road into and out of town that were affected and not at all centrally located in Baton Rouge.” 

Transitional phase

Throughout the Gulf, residents and emergency responders indicated they did not expect this type of damage from the Category 1 storm, which was light on wind damage but ultimately deposited so much rain that a crisis of flooded rural towns emerged. It didn’t devastate downtown New Orleans as Katrina did in 2005.  

After drenching Haiti and Florida, Isaac arrived almost seven years to the day after the epic Hurricane Katrina left hundreds dead, enormous property damages and a displaced population. Even after a 24-hour landfall, Isaac’s outer bands and remnants continued to soak the Gulf region, causing estimated losses ranging from $500 million to $2 billion.  

Now church responders and their partners are in a transitional phase from response to recovery and rebuilding, taking stock of what this storm has taught them and how the lessons of Katrina paid off. 

First, they say, it’s slow work when helping people rebuild after a disaster. There are immediate needs as well — relocation costs, finding temporary assistance, hardships associated with navigating insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency forms, finding employment and, at times, overcoming poverty that existed before tragedy struck.  

Disaster management

On a relief drive to the St. James Parish area in Lutcher, La., two weeks after the storm, Carol Spruell, communications coordinator for Catholic Charities Baton Rouge, told Our Sunday Visitor by phone she was worried about heat and standing water giving rise to more cases of West Nile virus. It’s a new twist in the disaster story.  

In Mississippi, at Vietnamese Martyrs Parish in Biloxi, Father Jimmy Pham was breathing easier after his worst fears were not realized. Katrina’s storm surge and winds severely harmed the fishing industry families living here in 2005. But Father Pham’s parish community was spared during Isaac, apart from some minor church damages. 

After Katrina, Catholic Charities Baton Rouge became the lead nonprofit agency for disaster case management after thousands of refugees poured in from New Orleans.  

“With Katrina, we got a crash course in recovery, and now we train the whole network in disaster response — several of us were dispatched to work in the American Samoa islands following an earthquake there,” Spruell said.  

After Katrina, the staff adopted a FEMA and military-style Incident Command System whereby they deploy plans that have been practiced and further rehearsed even as Isaac veered toward New Orleans.  

“Isaac was — and still is —very much a moving target. There are daily and hourly responses in our response plan, and we have learned to expect that,” Spruell said. 

Tom Tracy writes from Florida.