2:02 AM, EDT I have finally stopped crying and have turned off CNN for the night. I just can't take any more. I can't hear any more stories of families and children trapped inside attics; I can't see any more images of miles and miles of flooded homes that have become coffins; I can't listen to any more anchors or reporters butcher the names of streets I used to drive on every day.
This morning, I turned on the TV as soon as I woke up to see what was happening with Hurricane Katrina. Amy and I have countless friends and colleagues in and around New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, and we were initially relieved to hear reports from the CBD (downtown New Orleans) that the storm had veered to the east and would not be the hurricane that washed the entire city of New Orleans away. Street flooding did not appear too severe, and the early reports were that nearly everyone had evacuated safely. However, when we watched the eye pass over lower Plaquemines Parish, St. Bernard Parish, and slam into Harrison County, MS, we knew that the news would get worse. And as we returned home late tonight and caught up on coverage, the bad news started rolling in. As I write this, thousands of people are trapped inside attics and on top of roofs across New Orleans and points east, and many rescue operations are suspended due to the danger of downed power lines and ruptured gas lines that aren't visible at night. It is going to be a long, dark night for many thousands of people.
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Last night, I began to cry in church singing the song, "Blessed Be the Name of the Lord." Part of the song goes like this:
Blessed be your name
When the sun's shining down on me
When the world's all as it should be
Blessed be your name
Blessed be your name
On the road marked with suffering
Oh, There's pain in the offering
Blessed be your name
You give and take away
You give and take away
My heart will choose to say
Lord, Blessed be your name
I remembered the first time I cried during a hurricane - last year while Hurricane Charlie ripped through my hometown while I sat safely in North Carolina. Over 90% of the homes in the county where I grew up in Florida sustained damage, and over the last month of living here again, I have seen that a year and a month have not been nearly enough time for recovery. There are still people living in temporary housing, there are still roofs yet to be replaced, and there are still great mounds of rubble where buildings once stood. Places I remembered as a child are gone - wiped away from this earth in an instant - and this place that is so important to my identity is forever changed.
I remembered then New Orleans - the place where Amy and I moved the day we returned from our honeymoon. We moved to that strange (in so many ways) place without a single friend or a single real connection and we fell in love. We love the people, the food, the (not always inviting) smells, the river and lake, the streets, and the land. We love the quirks, the accents, the very real energy of the city, and eventually we came to love the pace of life in that city so famously below sea level. We love shrimp like you wouldn't believe, we love that "Burgundy" is pronounced with the accent on "gun" instead of "bur", and we love shotgun houses and the neutral ground.
And I imagined that it was all gone. And I cried. And I prayed that it would still be there tomorrow full of the people that make the city what it is.
The worship leader stopped and we prayed in groups around the sanctuary for New Orleans and her people and I thought of the first chapter of Job:
One day when Job's sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother's house, a messenger came to Job and said, "The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, and the Sabeans attacked and carried them off. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!"
While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, "The fire of God fell from the sky and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!"
While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, "The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and carried them off. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!"
While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, "Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother's house, when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!"
At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:
"Naked I came from my mother's womb,
and naked I will depart.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
may the name of the LORD be praised."
Is it really that easy? Praise God? From a distance - say like when we all watched the tsunami strike Asia last December or when we hear about how many people are dying in Africa from AIDS and poverty - I think it can be too easy. "God has a purpose in everything," or "God can be glorified in any situation," we hear ourselves saying.
But tonight I saw the place I once lived and still love drowning under a dozen feet of water. Regardless of the fact that CNN is naming every flooded street "Ward 9," I know that the footage shot from the helicopter is of Arabi and Chalmette, and that the people I saw on the rooftops were a few blocks from the school were Amy taught. Those kids go to her old school. And farther "down the road," as they say in The Parish, her school in Violet is likely in worse shape. I saw New Orleans East - the first place we lived as a married couple - under more than ten feet of water and we know that in that neighborhood, many could not find transportation to leave the city. Live on CNN, someone called to say that their family was trapped on a roof on Deanne Street, one exit down from our first apartment. The anchor passes on the call to a Fisheries officer standing by live who is doing search and rescue work. "NO!" I shout at the TV. "That's NOT in the 9th Ward!" "That's my old neighborhood!" I leave the room.
I return to watch live coverage of boats coming in with loads of rescued families from attics and rooftops. The reporter can't pronounce it correctly, but they are standing at Elysian Fields, using the exit ramp from I-10 as a boat ramp for rescue workers. Our second home in New Orleans was a mile from that
exit boat ramp. That's the exit I took a thousand times. No... more than a thousand. Amy and I knew every single bump and hole in Elysian Fields, and on a road built on top of a swamp, there are a lot of bumps and holes. We used to laugh about how our cars just seemed to automatically drive and swerve themselves from St. Anthony to Prentiss, down Elysian onto Gentilly across Franklin... I realize that it is all under water. And that many of our former neighbors who couldn't leave will spend the night wondering if they are going to die. Some of them will. The anchor says they are showing live pictures of the 9th Ward. I can't stand it anymore. I'm crying too much to shout again, so I just turn it off.
I wasn't there when Job's farm and business and employees and family were taken away. But I do know that he wasn't happy about it. He ripped his clothes and shaved his head and fell to the ground. Not exactly praise and worship kind of stuff - in fact, quite distinct from the event to which we've given that name. I'm not in a clappy, tambouriney, smiley kind of mood. I'm much more inclined to doubt and question and curse God than to praise Him tonight. Yes! Praise God that this storm wasn't as bad as it could have been - a few more miles to the west and all of New Orleans could be gone - not just underwater but wiped off the map gone! (Now I remember Gulfport and Bay St. Louis and Biloxi... try telling them it could have been worse. Nevermind.) But I pray that Job has a lesson for me and for you and for New Orleans and Biloxi and Pass Christian and Buras and the 9th Ward and a thousand other places you've never heard of. I pray that God strengthens my faith through the dark nights. I pray that God is glorified even in the midst of a hell on earth that I can't begin to imagine. And if I learned anything at all during three years in New Orleans, it is that "God is good. All the time." Don't ask me how or why or why not. But somehow my mind has overridden my hard heart in the course of this catharsis and the ice begins to melt and I fall on my face - an insignificant speck in the presence of the God of the Universe - and I say:
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised. Amen.