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Recalling the flood of human kindness after Katrina

Members of the South Carolina's Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team perform rescue operations in Port Arthur, Texas during the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. Photo by SC National Guard. Public Domain.

Photo by South Carolina National Guard. Public Domain.

Members of the South Carolina's Helicopter Aquatic Rescue Team perform rescue operations in Port Arthur, Texas during the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey.

 

The image is burned indelibly into my brain.

It was early September, 2005, and I was standing on the parking lot outside of our newly constructed Sports & Rec Center. A bus pulled up, and people began to disembark. I had watched it all unfold on television: the flooding, the devastation, the fleeing, the pictures of those who couldn’t flee. Like everyone else, I had been gripped by the devastation and sheer tragedy of the storm. But this moment was different. It had suddenly become personal.

Men and women, boys and girls, walked past me with faces that were expressionless. They had been traumatized and transported for so many days that they no longer showed emotion, neither sadness at what had happened, nor joy at the possibility of a good meal and a decent night of sleep. Some of them had come from the 9th Ward, and what I remember most distinctly – like an image from a bad nightmare – is the waterline stains mid-chest on their t-shirts. They were wearing the same clothes they had on when they escaped the flood waters days earlier.

The infrastructure of what famously became known as Hotel Katrina had already been built. Lay leaders of our church had created a corporate structure with various departments and organizations. They had decided that the “shelter” should be run like a luxury hotel, and they created departments for laundry service, food service, social services, and security.

The men’s ministry had taken the responsibility for food service and had planned a robust buffet system. However, when Mike Walker saw them walk in, he immediately altered the plan. I will never forget what he said: “These people have been walking long enough. Everything will be sit-down service with waiters. No one will ever have to get up from the table to get a glass of water or tea.” And that’s the way it was. Within days over 300 volunteers had obtained security passes so that they could serve. 

Today, Hotel Katrina maintains a kind of legendary status in our church. But I was there, and I can tell you that the memories of what took place have not grown or been exaggerated. What has grown and matured over the years is our appreciation, not for how we served them, but how they changed us.

In private conversations over the years, individuals have shared with me how life was transformed for them by Hotel Katrina. One friend said, “I have been in church and Sunday School all my life, but I didn’t get it. Now I do. This is what it means to follow Jesus.” Whatever Christ United is today, our DNA has been radically altered by those who came into our lives and taught us what it means to love God by loving our neighbor.

The plans for Hotel Harvey are already in place, aided greatly by the 30-page manual created by the original steering committee of Hotel Katrina. Whether we open the doors to Hotel Harvey depends upon the governmental agencies with which we are coordinating.

I hope and pray that our current generation of members will have the opportunity to serve God in the same way we were given twelve years ago. Either way, this is what I know: disasters remind us of our common humanity. They erase the lines that divide us.

When Harvey struck the Texas gulf coast, we were suddenly no longer black or white or brown, no longer Republicans or Democrats or Libertarians, no longer conservative or progressive about the many social issues on which we squander so much emotional energy. We were, and are, just human beings, the children of God, brothers and sisters trying to survive the storm by loving one another and creating some semblance of the Beloved Community. This is a Truth that transcends the lies of those who say we should be at war with one another.

Floods wash away many things. They wash away homes and possessions and physical security. But this time it rained so hard that it washed away the colors of our skin, it washed away our prejudices and our politics and our false ideologies that divide us and sometimes make us mean.

This flood has left us naked and exposed, so that all we can see are other human beings, brothers and sisters sitting at the table of suffering that is sometimes the kingdom of God. That is the way it is today. That is the way it is supposed to be.

I pray to God that is the way it will continue to be.

*Reverend Don Underwood is the pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas. Read additional columns by Rev. Underwood at his Weekly Column website.