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Katrina breaks Americas heart


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26/09/2005: United States


KatrinaHurricane Katrinas devastation in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama is possibly the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States. The governor of Mississippi called the effects of Katrina our tsunami. Whether or not the metaphor is appropriate, it is clear that the devastation is beyond anything that anyone, including the experts, could have imagined.

Why did this happen? How did this happen? These questions have been shouted, yelled, screamed, written, and cried for the last week. The answers are numerous and complex; however, there has been no shortage of finger-pointing and blaming. The Democrats blame the Republicans. The epublicans blame the Democrats. The state governments blame the federal government. The city governments blame the state governments. Inquiries will be held, commissions will be formed, and politicians will make messianic promises while thousands upon thousands live in fearful uncertainty. Current estimates are that it will take over $100 billion dollars to rebuild the storm ravaged areas in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

Some things are clear. New Orleans, Louisiana, which is five to twelve feet below sea level, has always been in danger of cataclysmic flooding. Many other cities and towns along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi are similar in their potential for significant flooding and damage. The fact that these areas have been spared for many, many years has just been meteorological luck. This time the luck ran out, and as is often the case in such disasters, the urban and rural poor make up a disproportionate number of the victims.

One day after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was, for the most part, dry. Citizens and experts alike thought that the Big Easy had dodged the big one. Two days after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was filled with five to twelve feet of water after the levies broke from the force of a twenty foot storm surge. Water poured in to New Orleans and surrounding cities and towns covering an area the size of Great Britain. It is estimated that it will take between 30 to 80 days to pump out all the water.

Today, one week after the flooding began, the staggering implications are still unfolding. Thousands are feared drowned, their bodies still trapped in flooded homes, apartment buildings, and nursing homes. Toxic flood waters contain feces, corpses, chemicals, gasoline, garbage in addition to alligators and snakes.

Schools, if they open at all this year, will not begin until December or January at the earliest. (The school year in the US begins in August and September.) Small local hospitals as well as nationally known medical centers have no water, no electricity, and little medicine. Communication systems are destroyed, and it will take weeks, if not months, to rebuild them. Electricity may not be able to be restored in some areas until November or December. Whole neighborhoods, towns, and small cities have been wiped out. Even when the water is pumped out and it is safe to go back, many people will have nothing to go back to.

The darkness of these hurricane days has been brightened by the response of the world community and the people of the United States. Despite the image that many people outside the United States have of Americans, we are people with big hearts. The federal and state governments are responding with money, food, and personnel, but it is the people of America and the world who have provided the greatest response to the relief effort.

Dioceses throughout the United States have asked Catholic elementary schools, high schools, and colleges to enroll students from the flood damaged areas. Public housing projects in a number of American cities are taking in displaced families. Churches have opened their doors to house and feed thousands of people. Rich and poor across the United States are opening their homes to those left homeless. One businessman spent $2,000,000.00 of his own money to relocate an entire neighborhood to another part of the country. Another businessman in New York City filled twelve tractor trailer trucks with needed supplies which he bought and supplemented with donations from thousands of New Yorkers. One woman from New York City said she was too poor to make a monetary donation, so she spent twelve hours loading trucks with relief supplies. Scenes like this are being repeated over and over throughout the country because, I think, it is part of our nature to reach out to those who are suffering and in need.

Brother Steve Synan had just moved from Kenner, Louisiana to one of the Marist communities in Chicago one week before Hurricane Katrina hit. He returned to Louisiana two days after the storm to collect some things which he had left at a friends house. Because Steves friend lives about 20 miles north of New Orleans, his home and Steves belongings were safe. The same was not true for Steves flooded former neighborhood in Kenner. Steve said that what wasnt destroyed would be uninhabitable. In an email to me, Steve said, I just cannot find the right words to tell you how horrible this is. I cannot believe what I am seeing.

Like much of America, Marist USA is responding to the Katrina crisis in a variety of ways. The school year is just beginning in the States, but already hurricane relief has provided a focus and energy for Marist Educators and Marist Youth. All our US Marist schools have already begun efforts to raise substantial funds and to collect supplies to aid the hurricane victims. As I write this, Christopher Columbus High School (Miami, Florida), St. Brendan High School (Miami, Florida), Our Lady of Lourdes High School (Poughkeepsie, New York), and Marist High School (Chicago, Illinois) have already enrolled hurricane victims free of charge. Msgr. Pace High School (Miami, Florida), Guadalupe Regional Middle School (Brownsville, Texas) and Marist High School (Bayonne, New Jersey) will all be accepting hurricane victims in the days ahead. All our other US Marist schools have expressed an eager willingness to help in any way they can.

Katrina has broken Americas heart, but it has given our Marist schools a chance, once again, to live out the call of sections 152 and 153 of In the Footsteps of Marcellin Champagnat: A Vision for Marist Education Today.

152 We educate students in solidarity above all in welcoming into the same school young people of different religious and social backgrounds, as well as those students who are disadvantaged or marginalized. To help our students live positively with such diversity which increasingly characterizes our different settings, we educate them to dialogue and to be tolerant. We create a climate of acceptance, mutual respect and support, encouraging the stronger to help the weaker.

153. We educate for solidarity, presenting it as the Christian virtue of our time, a moral imperative for all of humankind, given our contemporary global interdependence and the pervasiveness of structures of sin. We incorporate the challenge of solidarity in our general curriculum, as well as teach the social doctrine of the Church in classes of moral or religious education.

As Marist USA and the international Marist world reach out to Katrinas victims, we know that Marcellins encouragement to make Jesus Christ known and loved will be lived out and acted upon once again as it was after 9/11 and after the December 2004 tsunami. We have no other choice, for anything less would not be Marist.

Brother Hank Hammer, FMS

September 8, 2005

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