Divine Word Missionaries
Info & News
From: Renee Chvalovsky
Sent: Friday, September 09, 2005 9:35 PM
Subject: Update on St. Augustine's by Jim Pawlicki, SVD
KATRINA AND ST. AUGUSTINE'S
I have finally found the time to sit down and write you confreres about what has happened to us here at St. Augustine's Seminary. I hope the account will be readable.
The storm which began on Sunday morning and hit us with force about 4am on Monday morning and finally stopped about 3pm that Monday afternoon was truly an experience that no one could ever fully describe. In fact as I sit here this Sunday evening, one week later, I still find it hard to believe that Katrina could have been such a destructive force.
On Sunday evening we prepared ourselves for a long night. Winds picked up and yet we went to sleep that night with power on and very little reason to fear anything. Why, you may ask?
I am sure that many of you are asking why you all didn't evacuate. The question is fair but the answer is easy for us here. We here at the Seminary have weathered many storms. The seminary is at the highest point in Bay Saint Louis and we have never flooded in all the years we have been here. Never even remotely threatened with flooding. No, the Bay has always been considered safe ground. That is why on the day of the storm many people came to stay with us as is usually the case. Some 40 people of town came to the seminary or the retreat center and we all hunkered down.
When the winds started to pick up about 2am and hurricane force winds descended upon us tornadoes began spinning off around our property around 4am. We were happy we were in our well constructed buildings. (thanks to Cliff Labbe!) Our generator kicked in and we had power in one part of the house (the kitchen) and even had air conditioning. The winds began to howl and trees began to fall but we knew the buildings were solid and that the storm would soon pass.
But Katrina had something else in mind. She began to slow down and swerved directly at us in Bay Saint Louis. The winds were ferocious but what hit us and the community of Bay Saint Louis the most was water. Yes, water!!
As we sat in the dining room waiting for the eye to come over us so we could go check out my office someone ran in and said the cars were under water. Well, we found that hard to believe. Yet all of us jumped out and ran over the other building to see. What greeted us was a sight that only nature could paint. There was now a lake. Our cemetery was a gigantic river going over the fence at a height of about 6 feet and the water completely covered all the cars and trucks.
We ran back to the main building and turned off fire alarms. We looked out the side door and saw water coming in the door. Someone came running to me about shoring up the front door and I looked at them in disbelief. I remember saying "what are you talking about". When I turned the corner all of our grounds were covered with some 5 feet of water and coming through the doors.
Father Bob Fisher somehow got into the house by swimming from the retreat center. Water there was over 8 feet high and people had to get into the attic. With space limited Bob swam to us. He made it.
We got all the men, wheelchairs and all up the stars to the second floor and looked out the window in disbelief. Water was rushing through our property and submersing the cars and throwing them around like they were toys. Most alarming was the fact that the water kept rising. Concern was etched on everyone's face.
We worried about the Provincial. We later found he had made it with help from people in the retreat center.
The water continued to rise. Some began to ask if there was a way to get on the roof. But as the water rose to the fourth step on the stairwell the water began to recede. We breathed a sigh of relief. We began to open the doors to allow the water to flow out faster.
Then we began to work on cleaning the hallway and kitchen. Mud was everywhere! The generator was off. It was hot, stinking, and we were full of mud. We found out the chapel was a disaster and most rooms on the Northeast side had water coming into the rooms.
After the cleanup we sat and talked. Then we began to venture out and saw the damage. The roof on our residence hall was severely damaged. Tree branches were everywhere and some trees were pulled out from the roots. Mud was everywhere. Not a single car was operational. All were a total loss. Walking with Bishop Steib that evening after the storm he remarked to me that were in a war zone. When we saw the entire 2 mile Bay bridge was gone we shook our heads in silence.
I and many others had been in Hurricane Camille in 1969. The storm surge was 24 feet but the water never came close to us. We have found out in recent days that the storm surge with Katrina was over 35 feet with waves on top of that. No wonder we had the water. In a sense we had a Tsunami that devastated the entire Gulf Coast. Why did Katrina slow down?
The next day we began assessing the situation. We worried about how to get Father George Artis, SVD in for dialysis. While deciding how to do this since the hospital in town could not help (they were shut down) we flagged down a passing Coast Guard helicopter. They saw our frantic waving and landed on our field. They took George immediately for his dialysis. God was watching us.
We did some clean up work and decided that the older men would have to leave. Fortunately St. Rose Parish had a van and when we went out to see if it would start we found that it started up with no trouble. What a blessing. With this van we would begin transporting some of the men out of this hostile living situation. I and Sebastian Milalydil the pastor of St Rose were asked to take a group of the men out to Vicksburg, Mississippi and they would then be taken to Greenville. We would also make contact with the outside world since all communications had ceased in Bay Saint Louis.
So on that Wednesday we left on our journey. In our car were three people who had nothing left. They had also stayed in their house that also had never flooded. Not that day. They had to go on top of the roof and hung on to a tree to ride out the storm. We found those three shivering and crying on our property that afternoon and we took care of them. We took them down the road to family that met them from Mobile. We had to go to Mobile and then up to Meridian. We got to Meridian and had to stop. We had only a gallon of gas left. So we called Father Boykins in Vicksburg to come and pick up the men and bring some gas. You see on our trip we found out that the storm had knocked out all gas stations! Gas was gold.
So we waited on a dark stretch of highway outside of Meridian, Ms and waited. While waiting a truck driver stopped and we talked. He called some policemen to come to our aid. Unfortunately they had no gas. But we found out from them that a station down the road had just opened. Then Charlie came picked up some of the men. Sebastian and I and two of the fellows went and got gas! Then drove to Vicksburg. We finally arrived at 3 am and fell asleep on couches.
The next morning Charlie gave us a great breakfast. Eric Groner drove down from Greenville to pick up the fellows. Things had worked out and contact had been made. Those fellows were something else. Thad Boucree, Ray and Joe Guidry, Frank Theriault and his sister Marie never once complained. I salute them.
We began our journey back and with no gas found on the road Sebastian and I made it back. We made it with a gas can provided by Eric.
On our return we found that Father Jaison Mangalath had come in and picked up more people including Bishop Steib who had stayed with us. The community was now smaller but the older men were being cared for by our men in the parishes.
Finally Father Provincial left to make plans with Techny who wanted to help and make contact with others. He also had to find out what happened to some of our confreres who were missing. At this time all are accounted for except Father LeDoux who is in the highly flooded Treme area.
As I write there are only three of us now here along with our lay family. George Gormely and Bob Fisher and I are corodinating things at this time. We expect more people to arrive tomorrow and we are happy for that.
That is the narrative but there is so much more that has affected us who have been in this storm.
First and foremost has been the concern of the SVD family. The men have been wonderful in their response. Father Jaison has been here almost every day. Alfred Ayem and Brother Samuel have come and Gus Wall as well. Mark Weber and Dennis Newton have been tremendous in their support as well as Walt Bracken and the Techny community. Sebastian has been a joy to have here as well. His energy has been a real blessing. He is in Baton Rouge tonight getting a needed rest and hot shower. Hopefully we can get George and Bob out as well very soon. They need a break badly.
The people here in Bay Saint Louis have been so kind and generous. People have come with so many things for us and others it is hard to describe them all. St. Paul in Baton Rouge has come to help clean up rooms and bring us diesel fuel. A man came by this afternoon and asked me how many gallons of diesel fuel I would need. I said how about 100 gallons. He said no problem and I got 100 gallons. I am getting good at begging and running a generator.
We have a Coast Guard unit next to us and these fellows come by everyday to ask what they can do. By the way they will give us diesel when we need it. I think they liked our fried chicken!
Our cook and lay people have done so much for us here. Elmere Farve and family have been invaluable.
We had Mass here today and over 70 people showed up for Mass outside the chapel. People were so thankful and shared so much with each other. It was a real expression of faith and determination.
People have called and texted us many a message of support. People show up here from all over the country to bring us supplies. It is truly amazing.
Water is beginning to make its way in the system and we may have electricity in a few days. This is Bay Saint Louis a city and community that will not let itself get down.
What will happen in the days to come will be interesting. New Orleans is coming back but what will people find when they get back home?
Having been back only one week from a wonderful trip to Indonesia. I want the fellows there to know we are fine.
The damage assessment is minor to many others around us. Most of the rooms in our residence hall need to be fixed. Carpet needs to be taken out and there that darn mud in our chapel that needs to be removed. We have lost the roof on our residence building in Christman hall. Any roofers are welcome to come!
The retreat Center may be a total loss. Mud and destruction is everywhere. We hope to have an engineer come in soon to see if it can be saved. Who knows it may make more sense to rebuild.
Our chapel which was just renovated was ravaged with water and mud. Benches are strewn everywhere. Roof fared well but the clean up inside will take days.
So there you have it. It was an experience we will never forget. But through it all the support of friends and the Society has been truly special. One night I cried for the many people who have nothing and I cried because I was so touched by the response of our SVD family. We will keep going because of you guys. We are indeed fortunate to belong to this Missionary family.
We are tired, yes, but we will make it because we belong to one of the best groups in the world....the Divine Word Missionaries. Thanks guys.
Jim Pawlicki, SVD