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 CNS Story:

YEAREND-GULF Dec-11-2006 (820 words) With photos and logo. xxxn

Recovery efforts a constant challenge in year after major hurricanes

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The swath of destruction left by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 put dioceses from Texas to Alabama in the throes of ongoing recovery efforts this past year.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Diocese of Biloxi, Miss., both hit hard by Hurricane Katrina at the end of August 2005, took major steps toward rebuilding, but full-scale restoration was not even remotely attainable as thousands of residents no longer had homes, churches and schools remained damaged, and community service programs were no longer operational.

Along the coastal area of the Archdiocese of Mobile, Ala., residents of the small fishing village of Bayou La Batre spent the year trying to salvage what they could from destroyed homes and fishing livelihoods. Farther west, at the Texas-Louisiana border -- slammed by Hurricane Rita in late September 2005 -- rebuilding efforts were well under way except in the devastated area of the Diocese of Lake Charles, La., where repairs were only just beginning a year after the storm.

"The needs are still as great as ever," Margaret Dubuisson, communication director for Catholic Charities in New Orleans, said a year after Katrina. "If anything, the needs are greater as people come home or attempt to come home."

Throughout the year, the agency continued to provide immediate relief with food, medical care and shelter, but it was also inundated with long-term recovery needs from counseling to housing and was involved in gutting destroyed homes, remodeling apartments for the elderly and helping establish new communities.

The New Orleans Archdiocese alone was hit with $120 million in uninsured losses from Hurricane Katrina. The storm's damage forced six churches to close permanently and 23 to temporarily close. During the year, 24 churches and one mission that sustained extensive flooding damage reopened. Sixteen schools were closed and 21 remained open during repairs.

The Biloxi Diocese suffered property damage of $70 million and only half of the damage was covered by insurance. Thirteen churches were damaged, and three did not reopen. Five churches used temporary locations while their buildings were being repaired and four were in use amid reconstruction. Katrina also destroyed five schools and damaged 10. The diocese consolidated six schools into three and has been repairing 10 schools that remained open.

Recovery on this scale, particularly for individual homes, involved the efforts of thousands of volunteers from across the country who went to the Gulf region with parish, work and youth groups.

By mid-November, Catholic Charities' Operation Helping Hands program had gutted 1,000 homes and more than 1,000 homes still remained on the group's list, awaiting the efforts of more than 3,000 volunteers scheduled to participate in the program through next March.

Many volunteers frequently commented that viewing the destruction firsthand was far more powerful than seeing images on television or in newspapers.

Archbishop Pietro Sambi, papal nuncio to the United States, expressed the same sentiment after touring the Gulf region in mid-September.

"You cannot measure the extent of it until you come on the spot," he said near the end of a tour in September that took a dozen bishops through some of the worst damage wreaked by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding caused by the failure of the levees. He also said he was struck by the "quantity of suffering, for persons, for houses, for the city" and was impressed by the work of volunteers.

Financial help also played a role in the initial and ongoing recovery efforts in the storm-devastated region. Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, U.S. Catholics donated more than $130 million to a national collection for hurricane victims. A special collection was also taken up in parishes this past August. Initial donations, sent in from more than a quarter of all U.S. dioceses, totaled $3.9 million for hurricane recovery needs in the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Diocese of Biloxi.

Church officials in Biloxi and New Orleans filed paperwork with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and although they received a portion of federal dollars available for emergency relief FEMA would not pay to rebuild church buildings. Damaged Catholic schools also were eligible for funds through the Hurricane Education Recovery Act, but these funds were not always forthcoming and often involved lessons in bureaucracy.

The storm-devastated region also has been in the process of spiritual recovery during this past year. Biloxi Bishop Thomas J. Rodi, in a column for his diocesan newspaper, the Gulf Pine Catholic, noted that people directly affected by the storm had the opportunity to grow in faith even as they questioned why God would allow bad things to happen.

"We have had the opportunity to learn that God is with us both in the good times and in the struggles of life," he wrote. "We have also had the opportunity to learn that God can bring good even out of the worst of times."


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