On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast with all of her strength. The devastation from this Hurricane would not be felt for days but we can all remember the pictures on TV of what was going on.
A few days after this happened I was sent to Baton Rouge, Louisiana as part of an Emergency Response Team of the International Orthodox Christian Charities. We ere tasked with helping the local Orthodox Community deal with the aftermath of this event.
When we arrived we learned of the devastation first hand. It was Labor Day weekend and the ATM’s did not work and gas was getting hard to come by. Oh yes cell phone service was pretty bad as well. So much for modern technology.
We set to work coordinating a world wide response, working with the folks from several church groups and headquartered in the offices of Catholic Charities. Not only did they give us office space but they put us up next door in their retreat center, and they fed us most meals as well.
I have many memories, some good and some bad. Sometimes if I get the sent of something it will remind me of the smell that to this day is hard to describe. But I can still see the faces of 65 people whose name I never knew and probably will never know.
We had head that some people had been stranded at the airport in New Orleans. It was difficult to get into the city let alone get to the airport. We did get permission to go, and we secured some buses in the hopes of being able to bring some people out. The rumor was people had walked there and everything was running out.
Upon our arrival, we entered the airport through the baggage claim area. We had to be escorted around by armed security armed with automatic weapons. As I was leaving my room, almost as an after thought, I grabbed the small bag with my stole and a supply of oil used for anointing of the sick and left my room. Little did I know this would come in handy.
We were greeted by one of the doctors that had been assigned there and he told me of a section of the air port that was filled with patients from nursing homes in New Orleans. I was the first clergy person of any kind to come there, this was now about five days after the Hurricane. He asked if I would go and pray for these folks as they were not expected to survive.
As we moved through the air port I was exposed to the worst side of humanity. The side of people doing what they needed to do just to survive.
We entered what was being called the “black ward.” This was the place they sent people to die. It was a gate area, that only a few weeks before happy people leaving for all sorts of destinations gathered in. Now these people were preparing for another kind of journey. There were 65 men and women on Army cots all over the gate area. I set about anointing all of them. Not knowing their names or their religion, it did not matter to me then all I knew was these folks needed prayer. I would hold their hand, maybe stroke their hair and then anoint them with the oil as has been done by Orthodox priests for thousands of years. I spent a few moments with each one and then moved on to the next one.
Five years latter I still get emotional when I think of that day, as I am right now writing this. I can see each and every one of their faces, as they are burned on my memory. I thank God I was there for them and able to provide what solace I could. Some of them did not know I was there, and some did. Some would open their eyes and smile and some did not. One died as I was anointing her. What an awesome experience to be there for them at that time. I was also able to be there for the medical staff and give them some relief knowing that all of their patients had been prayed for.
Many lessons were learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Many fingers were pointed and blame was put on everyone. All I know is I was there for 65 strangers and maybe, just maybe I made their journey a little easier. God only knows for sure.
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