You can find no better example of the flexibility and effectiveness of the Salvation Army’s Emergency Disaster Services (EDS) than its response to Hurricane Katrina. It has been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and nearly erased New Orleans from the face of the earth. Thanks in part to EDS, the devastated areas have rebounded considerably.
“Each disaster is different; no two are alike,” says USA Southern Territorial Disaster Coordinator Jeff Jellets. “Each one creates its own special needs. The core of the Salvation Army’s disaster program consists of several basic services. Our disaster relief is also flexible. We adapt services to specific needs.” Jellets adds that emotional and spiritual care counselors have played a vital role in relief. And the addition of partner organizations like Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and HopeForce International has freed Salvation Army officers to take on duties as pastors to victims, as well as relief and recovery workers and volunteers.
New Orleans Area Command Captain David Worthy observes, “If the levees in New Orleans had not breached, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. The only disaster site for Katrina would have been the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and that was bad enough!” When the surging waters breached the levees cradling the Crescent City, which sits below sea level, 80 percent of New Orleans was plunged underwater. It was a nightmare of two natural disasters in one: a Category 5 hurricane and a flood. “If Katrina had not wobbled southeast of New Orleans, taking it due north into Gulfport and Biloxi [Mississippi], New Orleans would have been totally destroyed,” Worthy theorizes.
In the 10 years following Katrina, The Salvation Army has played a monumental role. The Army assisted individuals and families with immediate needs and rebuilt thousands of homes during the long-term recovery phase. Beyond everyone’s control, however, are the unsightly areas where only some of the damaged homes have been renovated or rebuilt. This is particularly true of the neighborhood hit hardest, the Lower Ninth Ward, where one can see a beautiful home on one reclaimed lot and an abandoned, dilapidated one next door.
Chela Clark is a caseworker at area command in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina wreaked water and wind damage on her house, but living on the West Bank in Gretna saved her home from the destruction seen on national media. Chela is still amazed that the Army processed roughly 600 clients a day in the following months—providing transportation and distributing vouchers for immediate needs, supermarket gift cards, furniture and clothing. “One case among the thousands was one homeless veteran who lost his home even before Katrina,” she recalls. “We housed him in our shelter for some time until we were able to find permanent housing. For a long time after he got his new home, he came by at least once a week to visit…If there is one good thing that can come out of a disaster like this, it’s that a lot of people in New Orleans know that they can depend on The Salvation Army,” she says.
There are many stories from Katrina of heroics performed by Salvation Army officers, employees and volunteers, such as that of Majors Richard and Fay Brittle, New Orleans area commanders at the time.
As floodwaters rose to nearly the second floor of the four-story Center of Hope—a complex offering shelter and transitional housing for individuals and families—the Brittles and residents were confined to the top floor, praying for help to arrive. With no power and no ability to communicate with the outside world, Major Richard was forced to begin rationing the remaining food. Marooned for days, he and his wife refused to eat, and when help finally arrived he required an IV and was evacuated by stretcher onto a National Guard helicopter.
Within a few months, Major Richard contracted terminal cancer, likely caused by the toxic waters that flooded the building. He was promoted to Glory in 2006. Majors Richard and Fay Brittle are credited with saving nearly 300 lives during that ordeal.
The scene on the Mississippi Gulf Coast was also catastrophic, but that area recovered more quickly. Along Beach Boulevard (US Highway 90), prime waterfront real estate lies barren and unclaimed to this day. Some stately homes have been rebuilt; but what remains is mostly lush, green grass and the occasional bare foundation to give witness to the grandeur that existed there before August 2005. What caused the stark difference in reconstruction in Gulfport and Biloxi with that of New Orleans? The answer is simple: flood insurance.
Properties can now “be got for a song,” as longtime resident Bruce Brookshire claims. “The problem is that even if you built a house there, the annual flood insurance premiums can run as high as $50,000! Who could afford that?”
Bruce lives in a 19th-century house built entirely of crushed oyster shells and cement. It sits like a fortress on the corner of Howard Avenue and Lee Street, roughly the distance of three football fields from the ocean’s edge. Katrina had little effect on what locals call the Oyster House, but hundreds of homes to the east and west of Bruce’s were destroyed, as well as the Army’s Biloxi Corps building on Howard Avenue. “When the original owner built this house around 1900 there was a severe shortage of bricks. What they had a lot of though were oyster shells. So he came up with the idea of crushing the shells, mixing it with cement,” Bruce marvels.
John Lowe, another Biloxi resident, rode out the storm in his house above Back Bay. John was with the Biloxi Police Department at the time. He is now retired from the U.S. Air Force. His wife, Wanda, was an employee at the Biloxi Corps and works on the staff at the Kroc Center there today. After the hurricane, John and Wanda ventured out to survey the damage around town and found a war zone. They helped hand out cleanup kits and hygiene products at what used to be the Biloxi Corps. “The Army owned what used to be the Dukate Elementary School, right next to the Biloxi Corps. The City of Biloxi wanted that property back for a city community center, and offered old Yankie Stadium in a land swap. Turns out, the Army had its eye on the stadium in hopes of building the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center,” John says. “The negotiations went on for some time, but the papers were signed and the land swap became legal just three days before Katrina!”
The Lowes worked tirelessly for The Salvation Army in the years after Katrina. John says he is “proud of what we as an Army were able to do to help our people recover.” He recalls great leaders the Army sent to the Mississippi Gulf Coast in Katrina’s wake: “Majors David and Cherry Craddock were in Gulfport, and Majors Donald and Helene Wildish were at the Biloxi Corps that year. During the recovery, headquarters sent Majors Rob and Janine Vincent, Majors Tarryl and Sharon Ray, Majors Alan and Belinda Hill, and now, Majors Gary and Beth Sturdivant. All of these are dedicated officers to whom much is owed by our community.”
Angela Grandberry is a staff member at the Kroc Center. She came aboard when it opened in 2012. She barely remembers Hurricane Camille, which struck the area in 1969, but she is certain Katrina was much worse by what she’s heard from her extended family. “My husband stayed at our house, and I took our children to our church for shelter,” Angela says of Katrina. “When the ocean started coming into our house, my husband ended up in our attic until the water went back down. At our church, we had to move up to the second floor, and we were terrified.”
“My children are resilient and appear to have no psychological damage from the trauma,” she says, adding, “but I’ll tell you one thing: if another storm like that comes along, I’m one of the first to evacuate!”
Major Gary Sturdivant, the current Mississippi Gulf Coast area commander, remembers, “Before August 2005, residents along the Gulf Coast referred to Camille as the worst hurricane to come through here. Now, they speak of Katrina. I reckon they will for a very long time.”
Many are unaware of a third area affected by Katrina. Majors Mark and Mary Satterlee opened the doors of the Army’s administrative office on Airline Highway in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to find thousands of evacuees on their doorstep in need of food and basic supplies (see sidebar on page 24). An abandoned motel directly across the highway became the staging area for some 40 Salvation Army canteens to serve hot meals and supplies for the next few months.
Army employee Arnold McDuffie knew his city was in trouble when he ventured out the day after to survey the damage. Driving a white van with a huge Salvation Army red shield on it made Arnold a marked man. “They came at me from every direction!” he says. The saddest thing he witnessed during those weeks was a family who had walked all the way to Baton Rouge from the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans: a distance of just under 100 miles. “I was driving a canteen back to Baton Rouge after a day out in the field, and there they were—this grandmother and several kids walking to Baton Rouge. My heart broke for them and I gave them a ride to our shelter.”
Back in New Orleans, the Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC) on Jefferson Highway was severely damaged by flooding. All of the residents had evacuated to other ARCs across the South, and with most of the city population gone for months and even years (as of today, only 80% have returned), there was no one to donate clothes and furniture for the men to process and sell.
“Majors Dan and Lynda Delaney were the ARC administrators when Katrina hit,” says Major Charles Stewart, who with his wife Major Donna Stewart oversees the restored ARC program today. “Sergeants Guy and Tasoula Nickum resurrected the ARC program a few years later when a semblance of a donor base returned to the area, and they did a phenomenal job; something, I think, few people could do!”
Karen Miranda has been the general supervisor at the New Orleans ARC since 2002. Karen remembers the day Katrina barreled toward the city: “The televisions in the store were all broadcasting weather bulletins and warnings,” she says. “Major Dan was at the Southern Bible Conference [in North Carolina], and Major Lynda was in charge here. She closed the store at 1:00 and carried out plans to get the men out. I went home and my family evacuated to Beaumont [Texas]. When I was finally able to return to New Orleans a few days later (because Army [workers] are considered first responders I was allowed in) I went to the center to check things out. The water was gone inside the building, but it left a thick, crusty, caked mud floor.”
Karen went to work at the Army’s EDS center in LaPlace. Every day a line of cars stretching over five miles waited for Karen and other caseworkers to process them. “It was a nightmare,” she sighs. She remembers vividly the sight of armed soldiers. “There was no job description during that chaos. We just did what we could; however we could. That lasted for about six months, at which time Lt. Colonel [Jake] Tritton hired me to come back to area command to work.”
Lt. Colonel Tritton was the disaster recovery manager for the New Orleans region while Salvation Army facilities and programs were being rebuilt and restored. Major Michael Hawley became the first official post-Katrina area commander, followed by Major Ethan Frizzell, Major W.D. Owens, and now Captain Worthy. Also of great importance were Majors Mel and Esther James, who came out of retirement to devote years of service to the Army’s recovery effort.
Now that a full decade has passed, Captain Worthy sees his role as the present New Orleans area commander as a mandate to return Salvation Army services, which have ministered in southeast Louisiana since 1886, to their traditional roles. “The work of disaster services is done here,” Worthy observes. “We are transitioning back to the historical area command unit, promoting highly sustainable programs that are intentional and specific to the needs of the people here.”
Corps activities are alive and well in the New Orleans Citadel Corps, particularly over the last five years. Chermane Allen is one example of the corps’ new life. She is one of a handful of soldiers who were faithful to the corps before August 2005, and now she’s taken up where she left off in her worship, praise and service to others. “I’ve been a soldier for 30 years,” Chermane says. “Being a part of this corps helps me overcome the nightmare we all experienced because of Katrina. I’m back at home now!”
Marie Pellegrin, a soldier for 25 years, has also returned to the corps. Marie was very familiar with the Army’s EDS ministry, even before Katrina. “We lived in an apartment complex on the second floor, and we decided to ride out the storm. The water came up nearly to our balcony. I had a grill and meat in the freezer that was going to be bad since we had no power, so I cooked everything and fed as many people as we could!”
Post-Katrina soldiers at the Citadel Corps have their own reasons for becoming Salvationists. Joseph Showers was in the New Orleans ARC program that year, and evacuated with the other men to the Houston ARC. He even graduated from the program during their relocation. “After I graduated, I went to Baton Rouge to stay with my brother, and we eventually both went to work for FEMA back in New Orleans,” Joseph says. “Our job was to help clean up the city. It was a monumental task that I thought would never end!”
Joseph says that when the Citadel Corps came back to life he began attending worship services and Bible study classes. He became a soldier in 2008. Joseph has a heart for ministry among homeless men, and he still does whatever he can to help feed and clothe the homeless and bring them to church services at the corps. “I’m so thankful to God and to The Salvation Army. My heart’s desires are met by being a Salvationist!” he says.
Valerie Murry is a Salvationist of some 40 years. Today she feels extremely blessed. She ended up in Houston, and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. After returning to her home, the Army helped her rebuild. When Bible study and worship services returned to the Citadel Corps, so did Valerie. “The Salvation Army adopted me, took me in, clothed me, sheltered me, fed me and prayed over me,” she says.
Several staff members at the area command have been sold on the Salvation Army’s multiple ministries and have come on board as caseworkers and volunteers. Cynthia Morrison began working for the Army in 2009 as a case manager.
In addition to coordinating building projects for houses for displaced families, Cynthia also promoted Major Frizzell’s vision to grow the local economy by offering homes for critical personnel coming back to the city, like teachers, firefighters and policemen. “By that time, many of the other community recovery agencies were shutting down, but the Army was still building houses for many families.”
Cynthia is now property manager for the Army’s Center of Hope. “I’m astounded at how the Army has been consistent and has never stopped helping people,” she says. “We still shelter people who were affected, providing social services, utility assistance, food, etc. The Army has been very flexible and consistent with their dedication to the people and their changing needs.”
Tamaka Golden-Ross has been a caseworker since 2006. Among the saddest stories of her client caseload is that of a middle-aged man who returned home to find the bodies of his mother, grandmother, two aunts and three cousins. “On top of all that trauma, he couldn’t find a job,” Tamaka says. “Ministering to him is indicative of thousands we’ve tried to assist.” Tamaka adds that her coworkers still come across many who are separated from family that is still scattered across the nation, and many are still dealing with their grief.
The three frontlines where Katrina caused immense destruction have fared differently in its wake, but each area’s recovery benefited from countless Salvation Army officers, soldiers and volunteers. The Mississippi Gulf Coast is back to normal, except for pockets here and there in Gulfport and Biloxi and several empty lots on Beach Boulevard. Emergency responders in Baton Rouge hope they never again face a tsunami of evacuees from New Orleans like they did in early September 2005, but if they do, they’ll have lessons learned to draw from. As for New Orleans, 20 percent of its pre- Katrina population may never return. Many damaged houses will never be removed or renovated until the legal bottleneck eases.
We thank God that the areas affected by Katrina have survived, and even thrived, since the hurricane swept through. Salvation Army personnel can take a measure of pride knowing that faith in one another is well deserved.