INSIDE STORY: After Katrina, ‘Big Easy’ is anything but
Yes, we were all a flutter for a while over Hurricane Katrina, that storm of the century that ravaged this metropolitan swampland and much of the Gulf Coast.
But then life — not to mention other hurricanes (namely Rita and Wilma) — got in the way of our short-lived concern. We had church fellowship meals to organize and kids to take to basketball practice. We had Thanksgiving turkeys to roast and Christmas presents to buy.
And somewhere along the way, we forgot about Fred Franke and our suffering brothers and sisters in this city that some of us knew as the Big Sleazy.
OK, maybe you didn’t forget. But I confess that I did.
Then I got a call from Fred, an elder at the Carrollton Avenue church, inviting me to come witness firsthand the needs and devastation that remain.
My highly professional journalistic assessment after three days here: Wow.
But before I elaborate, let me back up a bit: I first became acquainted with Fred when he e-mailed me the day the New Orleans levees broke. He and his family had fled to a Florida hotel before Katrina hit, but even from 250 miles away, Fred recognized the enormity of the disaster.
“We, like God’s people of old, are in exile – away from our home,” he wrote in that first e-mail. “Money has already run out for some of our number … and is running out for others as we speak. My family and I got out with two days of clothes, essential papers, etc.”
We used Fred’s comments in a short story on the Chronicle Web site that day, and he later told me that more than 150 readers contacted him that week, offering money, food, supplies and volunteer labor.
As it turned out, the storm made Fred’s own home uninhabitable.
Even as his insurance companies argued over what caused the damage 0 wind or water – Fred focused on shepherding emotionally traumatized Carrollton Avenue members scattered near and far.
Even as he, his wife, Dee, and her parents, age 85 and 86, were forced into a rental home an hour and 45 minutes away, Fred worked 16-hour days gutting members flooded homes and organizing church work crews from across the nation.
Even as he maxed out his credit cards, Fred put his personal businesses on hold to devote himself full time to directing Operation Nehemiah, a ministry of the Carrollton Avenue church with a goal of “helping rebuild the walls of people’s lives and the church in New Orleans.”
Why did he do it? Because he felt, as he explained to me, that God gave him the strength and endurance to serve in “such a time as this.” And because, as it becomes quickly evident when you meet him, he loves this beleaguered city, warts and all.
Where others might see a modern-day Sodom in ruins, Fred holds out hope for “turning Babylon into Jerusalem.”
Which brings me back to my visit.
While I had seen the blue tarps covering hundreds of damaged roofs from the air, the view on the ground revealed miles and miles of debris – miniature mountains of three limbs, mattresses, broken chairs, smashed toy robots and mildewed stuffed animals piled high outside thousands of homes.
Equally striking were the bright red X’s painted on each front door, showing the date inspected by search teams and the number of bodies, if any, found inside.
But for me, the most vivid images were the devastated homes of church members and the now-closed churches – our churches – that could wither away without drastic action.
Mud caked on my shoes as I tiptoed through Wayne and Ann Arnold’s red brick house with the white columns. It’s now, of course, a nightmarish mishmash of ruined furniture and personal belongings.
A few miles away, the dust and residue made me sneeze in the smashed-in entry way of the Crowder Boulevard church, where brown weeds stick to broken, tumbled-over pews with fading orange cushions.
Fred’s reason for inviting me was simple: He knew if I came, these images would stick with me long after I returned home.
Now, he has a request: He wants you to visit, too, and see how you can help.
I know, I know. You’ve moved on. So had I.