Our Katrina Story

carrie Fri, 08/28/2015 - 11:08am

On this fifth anniversary of Katrina, I, Nieta Nunn, widow of the pastor at the time, Cliff Nunn, am writing a few memories of that event.  Cliff and I were planning to ride out the storm, as we usually did, but during the early morning of Aug. 28, 2005, we decided that it was time to leave.  After Cliff sent email to cancel church (it was Sunday), we drove all the way to my sister's house, north of Dallas, with our 82 year-old neighbor.  There we watched the unfolding disaster on a big screen TV.  We saw satellite pictures of our flooded neighborhood on the Internet, and knew we would not be going back right away.  Cliff spent much of his days there on the Internet, trying to find everyone.  Before we left, Cliff had backed up his computer and church and Presbytery stuff on a little flash drive, which he took with him.  With this information, he was able to contact many of the members. 

After two weeks, Cliff went back to Baton Rouge to help the Presbytery office to get their computers running, and to help them to locate all the ministers of the churches in South Louisiana.  He made a few trips into New Orleans, taking pictures of the flooding.  After a couple of weeks, Cliff returned to Dallas to get me.  We were delayed by hurricane Rita, but made it to Baton Rouge where we stayed for a couple of weeks, returning for day trips to New Orleans to assess the damage and to empty our house.  One day, while we were at the house working, Amy and Euphrase appeared with my electronic keyboard.  I had loaned it to Euphrase, and their place had not flooded.  May and  Larry  Ball had come back also, and appeared at our house one day.  Cliff had not been able to find them by email, so we were all thrilled to see each other.

The first weekend in October, my brother-in-law brought us a private trailer (and generator) from Dallas.  He parked it next to the church, and it became our house AND the church office, complete with a Xerox machine.  He joined us at our first post-Katrina worship service at Kathy Crighton's house, and May Ball played the keyboard that Euphrase had returned.  We met at Kathy's house for the month of October.

During October, we hired our house gutted to the studs and sub-floor.  At the church, the Gym Romper ladies found some labor to clean out the preschool and preschool yard.  The Baptists, who had been sharing our building, removed their very foul-smelling refrigerator and freezer from the kitchen; and Paul and Sherri mopped up the mess they left.  Actually, the stench was so bad that they had to pull up and discard much of the kitchen flooring to remove the smell.

Then the Gym Romper's crew and several church members cleaned the fellowship hall, and we began meeting there (with no electricity) the first Sunday in November.  We developed the habit of having coffee in the back of the fellowship hall, so that we worshipped and fellowshipped in the same space.  We liked that, and decided to keep that same practice when we restored the sanctuary.

Also, each Sunday while we were meeting at Kathy's house and in the fellowship hall, various church members would return for a visit or to stay.  Everyone was so excited to see each other that we all hugged each other during the service.  When we moved back into the sanctuary, for Easter Sunday of 2006, and then permanently in June of 2006 after the sanctuary had been painted, we continued that hugging ritual.  We remained glad to see each other again every Sunday.

There are so many stories that I could tell about the recovery.  I have decided on a few stories about children.  Anything relating to children always deeply moved Cliff, and myself also.

When Cliff and I returned from evacuation to my sister's place near Dallas in early Oct. of 2005, a few private schools were open, but in the flooded part of town where we were living in our trailer, children were a rare sight.  The colleges in town had told their employees that they would be expected to return in January for the spring term.  We knew that for families to be able to return there would have to be schools and child care available.  Therefore, Cliff and the Session of First Presbyterian Church decided to make getting the preschool open the first restoration priority.  It was grueling work for us, and for all who were working to get the schools ready to open by that deadline.  Yet, we were able to get our inspection and open the Child Development Program in January with only one day of delay.  We were all filled with joy and excitement when the children arrived.

However, not all of the children (and families) who had been at FPCNO before the Storm came back.  In the time after the Storm, when our lives were all in such turmoil, Cliff wondered what a minister could possibly say to his congregation.  Cliff's habit had been to preach most of the time from the Lectionary.  It turned out that the Old Testament passages at that time contained the very messages that we needed to hear -- the crossing of the Red Sea, wandering in the wilderness, etc.  One of the passages was about the exile of the Israelites to Babylon.  Cliff said that he had never really understood the Exile before.  In his sermon, he listed all of the children who had been attending our church before the storm who had not come back -- who were in exile from our point of view.  There were scores of them.  The loss of these children and their families was a source of great sadness to Cliff.  The STUFF that we lost -- never mind about that.  But the CHILDREN and their families who never came back -- they were the REAL loss!

In the spring of 2006, the church began to offer our upstairs rooms to house volunteers who came down to help.  All of New Orleans was encouraged by the presence of these volunteers.  I am sorry that I cannot remember the names of all the churches, so I won't even try.  A number of churches sent youth groups to work.  One experience especially stands out in my memory.  The youth group came soon after we had removed the pews from the sanctuary in the spring of 2006, and they scrubbed and pressure-washed the sanctuary, preparing it for us to meet there on Easter Sunday.  On the last night that they were in the church, they had their devotional in the fellowship hall, and afterward they processed down to the sanctuary, where they prayed and sang, "Lord, Prepare Me to be a Sanctuary".  I was so moved that I ran up to the choir loft, and turned on the organ, which we had just got working again, and played a hymn of praise on it.  It was a very memorable evening for all of us.  In fact, all of the groups who came, whether they were mostly adults or youth, told us that their experiences in New Orleans had been "life-changing" for them.  Many of them came back for repeat visits.

During this first year, most churches and groups hosting volunteers in New Orleans had decided that they did not want any youth under 16 years of age.  But Cliff strongly felt that we had two missions.  One was for us to help people of all ages of the greater church of our country to have experiences that would enable them to see the relevance of the message and mission of the Christian church.  The other, and more obvious mission, was to help people in New Orleans to rebuild.  There was plenty of work, other than going into houses, which younger youth could do, but it did take a lot of work to find appropriate work for them to do.  When these younger youth came down with their parents though, the experience could be life-changing for the whole family.  I remember one family that brought a boy who had Down's syndrome.  Our church lawn was a huge mess, as was the narrow "neutral ground" on Jefferson Street, next to the church.  There was left-over debris from all the gutting that had been done, plus lots of big weeds.  The father and that child spent the whole week cleaning and mowing around the church and on Jefferson St.  Afterwards, the whole neighborhood looked better, and it gave us all a lift.  The child was so proud of the work he had done.  The work that he and his father did really needed doing; we were all too exhausted to do it ourselves; and the more skilled workers who had come had chosen to put their skills to work in other places.

I am very glad that First Presbyterian Church of New Orleans offered what resources that we had to house the volunteers who came, not only to help rebuild, but to give hope to the people of New Orleans that they worked with.  I am happy that, in spite of the extra work that youth and older children often created, that we were able for a while to include them in that ministry.  All of those people, including the youth, will never forget us.  And we can never forget them.