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Join Contributing Writer Craig von Buseck this week as he journeys into the areas most affected by Hurricane Katrina to provide perspective on its aftermath as well as how God is working in the lives of so many to provide hope.
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from the disaster zone

Devastation Beyond Expectations

By Craig von Buseck Contributing Writer – NEW ORLEANS -- A hospital is meant to be a place of healing, of comfort, of peace – and when death comes in a hospital, it should be met by a person surrounded by family, or friends, or at the very least by compassionate nurses, doctors, or ministers. But when search teams entered the Baptist Campus of Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, they made the tragic discovery of more than 40 bodies, many of them elderly, some floating in the toxic flood waters. News reports say that the medical personnel stayed to care for these critically ill patients until the end – which is as it should be. But when the emergency generators finally stopped working, the scorching heat took its toll and the medical workers had to leave those who couldn’t survive behind.

News of this chapter in the Hurricane Katrina tragedy dominated the news as I arrived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to make my way into New Orleans. The other image flashed over the TV news was of President Bush touring New Orleans’ famous French Quarter, flanked by the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of the city.

But my first personal encounter with victims of the hurricane actually came in the Atlanta airport as I eavesdropped on the conversation between a New Orleans resident and a police officer – he was returning from a short furlough after having been relieved by the National Guard.

“All the looters took was food from my home,” the middle-aged woman told the policeman, “and my feeling was, let them have it.”

The police officer, dressed in his New Orleans Police Force tee shirt, didn’t look surprised at all. “I stopped a woman and her son pushing two grocery carts full of stuff out of a Wal Mart. The buggies were full of TVs and electronics. There wasn’t a single piece of food.”

“What did you do with them?” a nearby rescue worker who was also eavesdropping asked.

“We couldn’t do anything. We took the stuff and let them go.” He paused for a moment, shaking his head. “I wanted to slap them.”

On the plane from Atlanta to Baton Rouge, I sat next to a medical professional named Beezy from the coastal town of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. She told me that she, along with most of the people she knew, had lost everything in the hurricane. She had planned to stay and ride out the storm so that she could be available in the hospital where she worked. But her 25-year-old son called as the storm intensified and insisted that she evacuate.

She did, and that decision saved her life.

After the storm her son went back to her house to survey the damage. He e-mailed her a photo of her concrete front steps – it was all that remained of her 85-year-old house.

“My community was almost completely destroyed in Hurricane Katrina,” she told me. “My church, First Baptist of Bay St. Louis, probably has 90 percent of its’ congregation homeless. Three of the churches in our area have been heavily damaged. All of them lost their steeples. The Catholic college, St. Stanislaus, is pretty much destroyed. There have been a lot of deaths in our town since the storm went right through there – it was a direct hit.”

“My home made it through Hurricane Camille [in 1969] with 11 feet of water. But the structure stood. That was with a 20-foot tidal surge, so I expected 11 feet since I’m near the coast. I thought that everything would be safe except for the flooding. But then we heard that there would be a 35-foot tidal surge. So after talking with my son, I left town. I went first to Jackson, and then as the storm got worse I moved again with family to Tupelo.”

“We went to a family member’s home and stayed in the basement for a day-and-a-half. While we were in the storm a tree went down outside and then the power went out. After the storm was over I went to stay with my daughter in Atlanta. But back in my home town there was devastation for miles up and down the coast. I can’t imagine 35 feet of water, hurricane-force winds, all the debris – the houses were just falling flat. And this went on for many, many miles in our area.”

Many of Beezy’s co-workers have found temporary jobs already in hospitals across the country. The hospital where she worked is still standing, though it sustained extensive flood damage. “I don’t know if any of my co-workers will return. Some don’t have homes.”

“So, you’re going back to a staircase, and that is all that’s left of your home,” I asked. “What did you feel like when you received that photo from your son in your e-mail.”

“I just couldn’t believe it,” she replied. “I thought, maybe everything was ruined by water, but the house was still there – it was just wet and saturated with mud.’ But there was nothing left but a foundation.”

“So you’re going back to what?” I asked. “Do you know what you’re going to do? Do you have a plan?”

“No, not yet,” she replied. “I’m going to go back to hopefully find some of my church members and co-workers. I’m going to go back to the property site to see if there is anything around the house that might be significant that I can hold on to and take with me. My son took a picture of a photograph of myself and my daughter and my niece from a trip that we took to New York – he left it there and I hope I can find it.”

“Did you take any momentos with you when you left?”

“No, I didn’t. I expected about 11 feet of water and so I moved all my important papers and pictures above that level in the upstairs of the house. I totally expected to go back and have the water receding and have the important things still there.”

“So, will there be work for you there at the hospital?”

“There will be work, but I’m going to go back and work a temporary job in Atlanta until I decide where I want to live and where I want to work. I have family in Louisiana, but nothing is really tying me to this area.”

“You say that you attend a Baptist church. Are they meeting somewhere?”

“They actually did meet last Sunday. They had some structural damage, but they’re still up and going – and it’s just a block off the bay.”

Beezy told me that she had an aunt that had been evacuated from New Orleans who went with her to Jackson. Before they left Bay St. Louis they went to a local nursing home to visit her sister. They were only there for ten minutes when the sister died. “We couldn’t make any funeral arrangements,” Beezy said, her glazed eyes staring at nothing. “She was from New Orleans, and we were going to have her buried there with family members. But all of those arrangements are still pending. I sent my son to check with the nursing home and my aunt had been the last one embalmed before the storm hit. She’s actually still there and will remain at the nursing home until the family can make arrangements.”

“That’s the kind of thing that people outside of this area have no concept of,” I exclaimed. “We just take these things for granted, and yet you have to work through the details.”

“I didn’t think I’d ever see this in my lifetime, another Camille, only much worse,” Beezy quickly answered in a tone mixed with despair and bewilderment. She shook her head for a few moments, sitting in silence, with just the whir of the jet engines making sound. Suddenly her face brightened and she smiled. “But I have so much to be thankful for. All I lost were material things. I have all my family members and I’m healthy. My heart goes out to these people from New Orleans who had nothing to begin with, living in the projects – now they really don’t have anything.”

As we landed in Baton Rouge I looked out over the airfield at dozens of military helicopters covering the tarmac – it looked like a scene from ‘Good Morning Vietnam.’ The helicopter parked at the edge of the runway had a giant red FEMA sign painted on the side. Beyond the helicopters were rows and rows of relief supplies stacked on wooden pallets waiting for transportation into the disaster zone.

I met my colleague from Operation Blessing at the airport and drove toward the hardest hit communities. As we slowly worked our way through the traffic piled up on the highway heading south I noticed a man sleeping on the concrete in front of an abandoned gas station. “What’s the deal here?” I asked my friend.

“There are so many people without homes here that they just lay down and sleep whenever they get tired. Officials are too busy to deal with that problem.”

Along the way we were passed on Highway 10 by a convoy of nearly 40 identical SUVs from the Federal Border Patrol – all of them flashing their blue and red police lights as they raced under a giant highway sign above marked New Orleans.

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Craig von BuseckCraig von Buseck is Ministries Director for Send him your e-mail comments on this article.



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