What Hurricane Katrina Survivors Taught Me

Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States ten years ago this week. I wasn’t in the storm, but I remember the people. After Hurricane Katrina, my husband and I volunteered at an old military base where authorities bussed many displaced people from New Orleans. These displaced citizens, my neighbors, were in a different state, many without news of whether or not their loved ones survived. Most had only the clothes on their backs. There were long lines of people waiting to speak with doctors and nurses, trying to gain access to medication they’d left behind in the flood. Families were making “homes” by pushing cots together, waiting their turn for the use of the bathroom facilities. These were people with homes turned homeless in a moment. Guards patrolled the halls and gathering spaces helping people find their way and diffusing tense moments to help prevent violence that could easily arise from a people who were mourning, alone, hungry, tired, and suddenly homeless. Personally, I found my New Orleans neighbors to be kind and thankful, hopeful though tired and weary. My job was to serve food.

The food went quickly. The lines were long, and more people seemed to arrive every moment. All of them were hungry. Restaurants were sending pre-made to-go containers of different meals, and we would get in trays of meat-filled sandwiches. But they would go quickly, and we’d be left with squished peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The people ate the PB&J sandwiches until they just couldn’t anymore. And then a huge rush of chicken meals arrived. My heart swelled! These people would really like this food! This might make their moments here a little more bearable. Let’s get these out on the line!

As I restocked the tables, a man approached. He’d cut to the front, looking clean and presentable. A volunteer. “I need seven meals,” he demanded.

“I’m sorry. The line is here, sir. You’ll need to take a place in line and we will get to you as soon as possible.” He glanced at the line and knew the chicken meals would run out before he reached the front.

“No, no. I’m not one of them. I’m here helping to lead a worship set in the next room. I need food for the musicians.” He looked at me as though I should obviously bow down at his sacrificial act of playing music and feed him the very best food. And I got a little irritated. I’d been standing with a line of very hungry people for a long time learning their names and watching their children play, and he was going to take a big chunk of our most recent donation. He was going to take it to people who’d only been there an hour or so, to people who would go home to houses with kitchens and stocked pantries, to people who had wallets filled with money and credit cards. And yes, I heard his tale about how it’s important to feed the workers, too. I recognized that the volunteers were allowed meals, especially the nurses who’d been there for six hours. But generally, the volunteers would wait for someone to bring them food, or they’d stand in line. They didn’t walk to the front demanding the best offering.

I refused to give the man any meals. My conscience just couldn’t bear depriving people who had nothing so that a musician could get a nice restaurant chicken basket. I got distracted with another part of the line. When I looked back, I saw the musician walking off with two handfuls of meals. He’d appealed to someone else, I suppose.

I’ve never forgotten this encounter, though it was so many years ago. And I’ve often wondered why I cared so much about depriving this musician of a meal. I helped deliver drinks to the nursing stations. I packed lunches to bring to volunteers working outside. But this man was different to me. There was something in his manner that made me think he was there for himself and not for the people. There was something in his manner that effused pride, a belief that he was better than the rest, that his service was more worth the reward. And something in me simply did not want to indulge that kind of elusive arrogance. The man’s pride brought out a different brand of arrogance in me—judgment. God help us all, please.

In the end, God provided. Meals continued to arrive. People continued to be served. Bellies were filled, medications were located, cots were covered with blankets and belongings. Children continued to find ways to play and giggle, adults continued to visit computer labs designed to help locate missing persons in different places of refuge. Many faces continued to smile with thanks at the workers helping feed them, thanking us for our time and service. Some faces were somber, their eyes too full of seeing and their minds too full of knowing things too sad to hold inside. And yes, people congregated in various rooms to worship in their own personal ways.

For some today, there is still permanent loss. Others are still healing and rebuilding what the water washed away or destroyed. Others have moved forward, finding new purpose in their rebuilt lives. As for me, I will never forget the kindness of strangers, so content to wait in lines and smile and offer thanks. They were alive, and in that moment, it was enough. Though forced to be humble and accept what they could not earn or pay for, they still gave freely of their thanks. I want to be like that: humble and thankful, standing in stark contrast to the arrogant and holier-than-thou crowd. (I’m not sure I always succeed.) Today, I choose to remember the goodness and gratefulness I saw that day and stand guard against pride, which is so much easier to see in others than in myself. That day I was serving my neighbors. I thought I would see them and feel pity, but when I left, I was in awe of their strength and fortitude. They taught me about not giving up, about being kind, about gratitude. That day, for me, was a picture of one body, working together, meeting each other’s needs, forgiving imperfections, and finding hope together.

Though the storm has passed, the roles still exist. Some need to humbly ask for help or extend gratitude, remembering how precious life is. Others of us need to remember that we have been blessed to be a blessing to others, not because we are more important, but because all of us are valuable and have a role to play. And for those of us who claim the title of “Christian,” let us take seriously our call to be ministers of reconciliation, agents through whom Christ manifest love and sends forth His hope and peace, whether we are on the side of the table receiving meals or giving them away.

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Micah 6:8 (ESV)