‘God allowed us to make it through’
NEW ORLEANS — Ten years after Hurricane Katrina waged war…
‘GOD, PLEASE SPARE US’
New Orleans opened the Superdome, home of the National Football League’s Saints, as a “refuge of last resort” for thousands of residents. But the Marsalises decided to wait out the storm a few miles from the stadium — at church.
The stout brick Carrollton Avenue Church of Christ had withstood Hurricane Betsy, which in 1965 struck with 125 mile-per-hour winds and flooded large parts of New Orleans. The Marsalises also were pleased to learn that the church had a generator, in case Katrina knocked out the power.
That Sunday afternoon, Charles, Angela and three of their boys — Charles Jr., then 17; August, 15; and Willie, 13 — stuffed a change of clothes in Winn-Dixie grocery bags and brought along toothbrushes, pillows and blankets.
Their pet Daisy, a black, mixed-breed puppy with golden tips on her ears, joined them in the van. Oldest son Dewayne, 20, had his own place and was not with the family, while Jaroy, 17, was visiting relatives out of state.
Figuring they’d go home the next day, the Marsalises didn’t pack much food. Friend and fellow church member Linda Green met them at the building. Also staying at the church were Green’s 18-year-old son, Jonathan; her brother, Bill Lundy; and church member Carol White.
The evacuees watched the news on a television in the “teen room” in the back of the church. Then, despite the handwritten sign out front that said “No Service Today,” they sang and prayed.
Angela remained anxious about the storm, but said she felt better after praising the Lord. The wind and the rain started about 9 p.m. But eventually, everyone fell asleep — the Marsalises on chairs and couches in the teen room and the Greens on auditorium pews.
About 3 a.m. Monday, Angela awoke to a violent, rushing wind that sounded like an out-of-control freight train. The storm had knocked out the power, and all she could see was pitch black — the church generator did not work.
“God, please spare us,” Angela prayed.
On her knees, she reflected on a recent women’s retreat at Carrollton Avenue, where guest speaker Sandra Collins from Nashville, Tenn., talked about David pouring out his heart to God.
One passage in particular, from Psalm 124:4-6, helped bring a sense of peace to Angela: “The flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, the raging waters would have swept us away. Praise be to the Lord, who has not let us be torn by their teeth.”
She fell back asleep.
PEWS UNDER WATER
About three hours later, the eye of Katrina made landfall in southeastern Louisiana as a Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 125 miles per hour. But New Orleans was spared the worst brunt of the storm.
When daylight came, the Marsalises opened a door and peered outside into the rain. About 3 feet of water covered the ground, rushing into the family’s van beside the building. However, only about an inch of moisture had seeped into the church — and just in the back.
No power meant no more television. The members staying at the church had a small radio but could not immediately find batteries. Even with their information flow cut off, it appeared to them that New Orleans had avoided the doomsday scenario many had feared.
The Marsalises decided they’d head home when the rain and the wind died down. Plan in place, the group fell asleep on the pews. Later, they awoke and decided to gather their things, but when Charles stood up, his feet squished into soggy carpet. They had thought the worst was over. Now, the water appeared to be rising in the once-dry auditorium. They had no idea where it was coming from. (Only later did they learn of New Orleans’ broken levees.)
“We have the balcony next, y’all,” Angela joked to her family and friends.
But the joke became less funny as the water kept creeping higher. Eventually, the evacuees started counting the number of bricks down from the window to see how much the water line had risen. It became apparent that they needed to move their personal belongings, as well as their water cooler, to the balcony.
At some point, as the water covered the top of the pews, a pirogue — a canoe made from a hollowed tree trunk — floated into the auditorium from the back of the building. The small, decorative boat had been filled with soft drinks at a church member’s recent Cajun-style retirement party.
Now, it seemed like a gift from God.
Charles pushed the pirogue, with son Willie and dog Daisy inside, to the pantry and filled it with communion crackers, three quarts of grape juice and paper products. A few of the boys donned baptismal gear as they trudged through the water.
The evacuees congregated that night in the wooden, movie-theater-style seats in the balcony. They lit candles and sang hymns such as “Just A Little Talk With Jesus,” “Climbing Up The Mountain” and “Mansion Over The Hilltop.” When they started hearing helicopters overhead, they took turns climbing to the roof and holding up signs asking for help.
By Tuesday, the church members were running low on food and water. Of equal concern, the ice that Linda, a diabetic, had brought to keep her insulin cool was melting.
By then, they had found batteries for the radio and heard that stranded residents could take necessities from abandoned stores. So, Bill, Jonathan and Charles Jr. (who goes by “C.J.”) headed out with the pirogue to a supermarket a few blocks away. They were gone so long, the others started wondering if they might have been arrested for looting. Finally, they returned with bags of Fritos and Doritos and bottles of water and sports drinks. They couldn’t open the locked ice machine at the store.
Wednesday afternoon, C.J. and Jonathan left again in search of ice — this time with a hammer to pry open the machine. While they were gone, a Red Cross rescue boat stopped at the church. The parents’ elation at the boat’s arrival was tempered by their concern for their sons.
“If you don’t come now, we don’t know when you’re going to leave,” a rescuer told Angela.
She could stay at the church and risk not being rescued, or she could trust that God would take care of the boys wherever they were. She made the difficult decision to leave.
Before floating away, she scribbled a message on the outside of the building: “C.J. GO TO BOWLING ALLEY.”
Angela meant he should go to a bridge holding evacuees about a half-mile from the bowling alley, which was under water. She later wished she had been more specific.
Leaving the church in the boat, the group viewed the utter devastation for the first time: Houses torn apart in every direction. Oily lakes where streets used to be. Worst of all, bodies floating in the water.
Approaching the bridge from a distance, Angela saw what looked to her like a giant sea of ants. Hundreds of evacuees — hot, hungry and angry over their treatment — stretched across the bridge. Some had been there for days.
Angela tried to lighten the mood, joking that she needed to put on makeup before joining the crowd on the bridge. Still, she found the scene difficult to stomach. Sick, elderly people in wheelchairs and babies in need of formula baked in the unrelenting sun.
On the bridge, irony mixed with despair. There were no restrooms or water. But fresh from the mud, many evacuees sported brand-new, sparkling white tennis shoes apparently looted from a Foot Locker. A few evacuees peddled illegal drugs. Others lugged stolen, 40-inch televisions.
“If those people can be on fire for the devil like that, then we need to get busy for God,” Charles told his family.
Angela focused on encouraging the desperate souls on the bridge. The Marsalises didn’t have many chips or bottles of water left, but they shared what they had.
At nightfall, they felt a bit of relief as the temperatures cooled. Still, they had not seen the missing boys in the crowd, and they were worried.
Lighting candles in the pitch dark that Wednesday night, they began singing again. As they lifted their voices to God, a few nearby evacuees grumbled. But soon, the church members attracted an appreciative crowd.
Folks requested their favorite hymns.
“Oh, baby, we are having church tonight!” one excited elderly woman remarked.
PLUCKED FROM DISASTER
They slept in shifts on the bridge.
With the craziness going on around them — including occasional gunfire — they didn’t feel comfortable sleeping all at once. Not that sleeping on concrete could be described in any way as comfortable.
On Thursday, they were taken to a different bridge — and forced to leave their puppy behind. They never did find out what happened to her.
Eventually, helicopters started dropping ready-to-eat military meals and bottles of water in a field, and the crowd would rush to grab them.
By Friday, buses began arriving to take evacuees to shelters outside of New Orleans. The church members kept waiting, hoping they’d spot C.J. and Jonathan in the crowd.
But on Saturday, a helicopter plucked the group from the overpass and took them to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, where commercial airlines were flying hurricane victims to major cities in Texas.
As he boarded a yellow-and-blue ATA Airlines plane, Charles — who had never flown before and didn’t particularly relish the prospect — couldn’t help but think: “God has a funny sense of humor.”
They learned in the air that they were headed to Austin.
‘TREATED LIKE ROYALTY’
For all the hell they had endured, the church members could not believe the welcome evacuees received in Austin.
Airline personnel hugged them as they walked off the plane, even though they hadn’t showered in days. Strangers offered money, food and water. One woman begged Angela to let her take her shopping for clothes.
After brief medical exams, the evacuees boarded buses and were taken to the Austin Convention Center. At the city’s designated main shelter, they were greeted by Mayor Will Wynn and given wristbands and clothes, food and bedding. Big-screen televisions showed a mix of cartoons and news coverage of Katrina.
“These people rolled out the red carpet for us,” Linda said. “They treated us like royalty.”
On Sunday, Charles and Angela attended a worship service at the convention center. That same day, their prayers — and Linda’s too — were answered. After contacting a relative in Baton Rouge, one of the Marsalises’ sons had located his missing brother and Jonathan.
“Praise the Lord!” Angela screamed, reaching for the phone and telling August to let her talk to C.J., who was staying with an uncle.
It turned out that C.J. and Jonathan had gone to the bowling alley, as Angela’s sign instructed. But finding it under water, they returned to the church.
When the boys were rescued, they were taken to a different bridge than their families. Problems with cell phone signals kept them from contacting their parents.
‘HAVE YOU SEEN THEM?’
A Carrollton Avenue pictorial directory in hand, Kirk Garrison traipsed through the convention center filled with thousands of evacuees.
Repeatedly pointing out pictures of the Marsalises, he kept asking people: “Have you seen them?”
Finally, Garrison found them. A former interim minister at the Carrollton Avenue church, he had driven 228 miles from Abilene, Texas, to tell his friends that church members across the country were eager to meet their every need.
Garrison, who has since returned to Carrollton Avenue as a co-minister, bought tickets for the Marsalises and Linda to fly to Nashville, where church members had offered to house them.
Perry Rogers, a Carrollton Avenue member who had organized the recent women’s retreat, arranged for the Marsalises to stay with Collins, the retreat speaker whose spiritual insight had helped Angela weather the storm.
But Angela didn’t know who her host would be until she arrived at Collins’ house.
“Mrs. Collins! Mrs. Collins!” Angela said, delighted to see her.
The Marsalises stayed with the Collinses for three weeks, plenty of time for Angela to endear herself to everyone with her red beans and rice.
Sandra helped Angela find a job with a child-care center, and Charles went to work for a landscaping company. The boys enrolled in school, and church members helped the family move into an apartment with no deposit required.
Their first Sunday in town, the Marsalises worshipped at the Otter Creek church, where Collins is a member. Angela could not control her crying. Every time someone mentioned “Jesus” or “God,” she became emotional.
“God spared my family,” she whispered to herself.
The Marsalises fit in quickly in Nashville. Best of all, Music City seemed a million miles from the Big Easy. Back home, everything was in shambles — including their flooded home.
Here, everything was fixed, or so it seemed.
The last thing they wanted to do was move back home — the horror was too fresh, the outlook too uncertain. But Fred Franke, an elder at the Carrollton Avenue church, believed New Orleans was exactly where God wanted the Marsalis family.
A MISSION OF HOPE
Determined to rebuild both the community and the church in New Orleans, Franke returned home after evacuating to Florida and formed a relief ministry called Operation Nehemiah.
Franke worked 14- to 16-hour days soliciting donations from church members across the country and organizing volunteer work crews to come to New Orleans.
But, in Franke’s view, New Orleans desperately needed resident ministers — people willing to help with the spiritual concerns of the traumatized people.
He could think of no better candidate than Charles, who before Katrina had helped plant a church and baptize 18 people in a poor part of the city.
“We really need you down here,” Franke kept telling Charles.
Eventually, Charles stopped answering his cell phone when the Caller ID flashed Franke’s number.
But when Franke got Angela’s number and asked her to hand the phone to Charles, he relented.
After much prayer, Charles determined that it must be God’s will for him to return to New Orleans — if only to put an end to the calls from Franke, he later joked.
Charles moved back to New Orleans in December, ministering to hurricane victims and working hard to repair his own family’s house, which had fared better than most. Angela and the boys finished the school year in Nashville, then returned home this summer.
Back home, Charles and Angela discovered a purpose in the trials they endured.
Before out-of-state church members enter a house to clear out the mess and debris, the couple help the volunteers and homeowners get to know each other.
Charles and Angela gather everyone in a circle and pray. They explain what motivates Christians to travel hundreds of miles to help someone they don’t know — to do a job for free that otherwise would cost thousands of dollars. They hug the residents and give them a Bible or inspirational book, along with information on how to contact the church.
NOT A PERFECT ENDING
When they didn’t know how the story would end, when they feared that they just might melt away on a crowded overpass, a frustrated Charles prayed that God would save him — or not.
“You’re going to bless me now or you’re going to bless me later — make up your mind,” he reasoned with his heavenly father. “If we’re going to die, we’re going to die doing your work. If we’re going to stay here, we’re still going to witness. So, make up your mind and do what you want to do.”
Blessed with the full picture, the Marsalises look back and see God preparing them. Preparing them to come back home. Preparing them to minister to a city full of souls in need of love, encouragement — and most of all, hope.
That’s not to say the picture is all rosy 12 months later.
The Marsalis boys worry about what school will be like with many of their friends scattered across the country. The Carrollton Avenue church struggles to imagine a future with roughly half its members not likely to return to New Orleans. The threat of another hurricane that could further rip apart a city in tatters hovers.
“I just put the way I feel on a back burner,” Angela said. “It’s just been an honor really to be back and to talk to people, knowing that you’ve been where they’ve been and we can get through this together.”
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