Religion + R e b u i l d i n g How a Catholic church anchored its community after Katrina Story and photos by JORDAN GAMBLE December 2010 Hurricanes are nothing special in New Orleans. In more than 50 years as a Catholic priest and a life-long resident of the Crescent City, Father Doug Doussan has dealt with plenty of storms, including “big ones,” like when Hurricane Betsy hit Louisiana in 1965 and flooded his neighborhood at Star of the Sea parish. U s u a l l y, D o u s s a n says, they’ll know several days in advance and have time to make arrangements – pack up a car with enough clothes for three days and then head out of town to stay with friends and family or at a hotel. They might come back to damage, but nothing insurmountable. “Everything else has been so miniscule, so t e m p o r a r y, ” says Sister Kathleen Pittman, a Sister of St. Joseph of Maidei who has worked with Father Doussan for the last 15 years at St. Gabriel the Archangel parish. The church serves the Pontchartrain Park and Gentilly Woods subdivisions in New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina came in the last weekend of August in 2005, Pittman remembers hearing there was a weak hurricane headed for Florida, and that Saturday afternoon in New Orleans was pleasantly mundane. “We left that afternoon, but people were mowing their yards, kids were playing ball in Pontchartrain Park – it was like any ordinary S a t u r d a y, ” Pittman said. “People didn’t realize. If you hadn’t looked at the TV – the paper didn’t even have it because it came out the night before, you know.” Besides, Doussan said, New Orleanians have dealt with so many hurricanes that they just assumed there might be the usual wind damage – t h e c i t y ’s p u m p i n g systems and drainage canals keep things somewhat dry by forcing rainwater into Lake Pontchartrain. No one expected the levees along those drainage canals to break and put 80 percent of the city under water. “That’s what really did it,” Doussan says about the levees. “So we say it was not an act of God, it was an act of the Corps of Engineers, the way they designed and maintained and built them, and they finally admitted the mistakes they made. If the levees hadn’t broken, we would have had very little damage.” Pontchartrain Park and Gentilly Woods were hit hard, Doussan says, because they are on land that is on a decline all the way to the lake. “The people in the first part of our subdivision had three feet of water, in Gentilly Woods, and the middle had five feet, and the back section, where [the church is], had eight feet, and in Pontchartrain Park they had 10, 12 and higher, over the roof.” The mayor didn’t let citizens back in for five weeks, Doussan says, so when he and Sister Kathleen could finally return to their neighborhood, it was like entering a ghost town. “Number one, the total silence, because there was nobody else in either of these subdivisions but us,” Doussan says. “There were no birds, no cats, no dogs – they’d all drowned. There were no children playing on the street or whatever.” The second thing was the landscape: A t h i c k f i l m o f g r a y, slushy mud covered nearly everything. It had baked in the Louisiana autumn sun and cracked under their tires and feet. The doors to the 50year-old church building had been forced open by the flood, and the water had risen six feet in the sanctua r y, l e a v i n g a l i n e right underneath the stations of the cross. The oak pews were piled up on one side of the church, swept out their bolted-down rows. “So everything Father Doug Doussan stands in the renovated St. Gabriel the Archangel church. The railing surrounds the baptismal pool, a new addition after floodwaters from broken levees destroyed the sanctuary five years ago.