Eight months ago I packed up a truckload of stuff from my New Orleans office, and a carload of stuff from my fiancée’s home. As was our custom during hurricane warnings, we lifted everything we had to leave behind table-high incase we got a few inches of water in the building – which is what we expected. We took pictures of how our property looked pre-storm for our insurance records. Then we drove to my home across the lake in Folsom. Folsom Louisiana is 50 miles north of New Orleans.
As we arrived so did our ‘guests’ who were evacuating from their homes in New Orleans. My home has been a resource to hurricane evacuees before. There are two reasons for this; one - because my house is on a hill 65 feet higher than the city road, and two -my home has 14" thick steel reinforced concrete walls. It feels safe when the wind blows.
By the time Hurricane Katrina hit the next day, August 29th, we had 18 people staying with us. And the wind did blow. I played the piano for entertainment as we huddled together in a couple of rooms and watched outside as the trees blew, bent over and then broke away. We listened to the TV and radio for what was happening in New Orleans. We knew it was a direct hit. Then we heard a loud crack as a nearby tree broke and the power in the house went out. The 20 horsepower John Deer generator didn’t kick in. The house was without electricity. We looked out the window on the side of the house and saw a large pine tree had landed squarely in the middle of the shed directly on the generator. Our home would not have electricity again for another 45 days.
All tolled, about 400 trees fell on my Folsom property. My home and barn were spared. It took four of us with chainsaws two days to saw our way out of the driveway onto the city road. The town roadway leading out of the property wasn’t passable by car for another three days.
My New Orleans office and my fiancée’s New Orleans home were 6 blocks away from the now infamous break in the 17th Street Canal. All the properties in the neighborhood received 10 ½ feet of floodwater. Eight months have passed since the storm and we are just this week able to start gutting out the house and the office. We doubt we will rebuild.
Half the people that stayed with us had homes and offices that received extensive damage.
When people and entire communities experience extensive devastation by a hurricane it’s not uncommon to feel small and insignificant. But the Course says, "seek not to change the world, but seek to change your mind about the world"(T. 415). We realized we could best help those effected by the hurricane by observing effective compassion. St. Augustine said, "Love and do what you will." And that was our post-Katrina motto.
For a month after the storm we were living and working together. It was like a commune. People worked together, rested together, helped one another, and did chores together. We shared costs, labor and responsibilities. Our community ‘To Do’s’ was the order of the day. We couldn’t get well water (no electricity). So when the bottled water ran out we convoyed and made store trips for supplies. C–rations were never our thing. We cooked on a camper gas stove, caught catfish from the pond, and improvised on our Cajun recipes. We pooled our automobile trips into town for our supply runs because gas was not available for a week after the storm. Then gas lines were blocks long and the wait for gas took hours. Few stores were open. None had electricity. For several days gas for the cars was not available because there was no electricity for the pumps. Most stores had no electricity so if they were opened at all they could only sell their non-perishable items. There was no refrigeration.
We went back to ‘simple’. We left complex problems to another time when we would have more capable means and we focused and dealt with the basic needs of today and the problems, i.e. hidden-opportunities at hand.
It was like living on an extended camping trip with 20 people. We set up a clothesline amid the trees. We washed dishes and clothes in the pond and bathed there also. We caught fish from the pond. We shopped for supplies together. We did house chores together. We read together. We entertained each other with nightly stories, some of which I image were true. We laughed and cried and talked and smiled. And we did it together. By candlelight we shared with each other from our hearts and soul.
When people went back to their homes in New Orleans we helped each other with the cleaning up. Food in the refrigerators was thrown out – often the whole refrigerator was thrown away. Walls were torn out; carpeting was pulled. Destroyed possessions were trashed. The work to repair and replace and re-inhabit had begun. Food, water, gas, clothes, a place to sleep were everyone’s concern. Those that needed prescription drugs sought suppliers; people joined together in their search.
In our small Miracle’s community we provided shared efforts as well as hope and encouragement. These were components that no bureaucracy could provide. When we could little needs were met and recognition was noted. The sharing and giving was the order of the day. Everything was either love or a call for love; no other alternative was possible. In the midst of the chaos love ran supreme.
It was five weeks after the storm before our Course In Miracles class could get into a new location and restarted. We met at first in a day care center. The Unity Church where we regularly held our Thursday night meetings had been extensively damaged. For 18 years this same Miracles class has met on Thursday nights in Metairie Louisiana. The class members were scattered, several were homeless, and most were disoriented. But we had no ‘victims’ by choice. At the end of chapter 15 the Course says ‘make this year different by making it all the same’. The reference was for a New Year’s resolution. We used it as our post-Katrina resolution for a new beginning. See everything as love or a call for love, and always react the same…with love. We communicated by email and cell phones to find out how everyone in the group was doing, where everyone was, and how we could help.
Visits were made. We updated each other with information and kept every one in our prayers. The hurricanes destruction was broad and deep. Our communities light and love and caring ran broader and deeper.
The images on TV didn’t seem to express the devastation like seeing or smelling it in person. Thousands of homes and office buildings were destroyed. Mold and debris were everywhere. Cars flooded. Boats sank. Pets were lost. Many people died. Fear, doubt, anger and despair were common in the streets. The storm interrupted everyone’s life. It uprooted their sense of normalcy. But as Henri Nouwen, a Yale professor said, "I kept being interrupted in my work until I recognized that the interruptions were my work." Interruptions can be good lessons. They give us helpful guidelines amid the moments of reflection. How can we help? What can we say? What can I do that will make an impact? How would Love see this? And the Spirit answers.
Stores and businesses that served the community worked months to reopen to serve the people. Construction crews came in. Homes began to be rebuilt. Trash was hauled away creating piles of debris that were several stories high. These trash piles seemed to go on for blocks and blocks and blocks and blocks. Labor to restore the community was in flow. Everyday something new or rebuilt or reopened is noticed.
Regardless of this external world, I see peace is at home here. I hear it from the class members and the weekly stories they share. The Course text page 542 says, "God willed he waken gently and with joy, and gave him means to waken without fear." That hasn’t changed. Jesus said on page 193 in the Text, "Teach not that I died in vain. Teach rather that I did not die by demonstrating that I live in you." The world of sin, death, destruction and fear had no effect on him. That’s how he lived, by canceling the effect of fear. That’s how we are to live and that’s what I see post-Katrina happening today.
As my friend Saul Steinberg, the first printer of the Course, used to say, quoting the Course, "Teach only love, for that is what you are."