Though she represented a spiritual-care response team, Sister Elaine Hollis found people too freshly removed from their nightmare to be very reflective.
Instead, the Sister of St. Joseph said, top priorities for survivors of Hurricane Katrina were locating loved ones; getting medical attention; and having sufficient shelter, clothing and food.
“(Spirituality) was nothing you could really force on people. People were still at the level of just basic needs, so the spiritual needs were just to be there with them,” Sister Hollis said. “You can’t move to other needs until those basic ones are met.”
Sister Hollis, who serves full time as chaplain at St. James Mercy Hospital in Hornell, volunteered in Louisiana from Sept. 9-22. She worked in conjunction with the American Red Cross through her membership in the National Association of Catholic Chaplains.
Her time was spent primarily in Baton Rouge, the state capital. She literally began ministering at the city’s airport, assisting a man who was trying to reunite with his family after having stayed behind in flood-ravaged New Orleans to protect his home. He had almost drowned when water engulfed the house.
“After spending two weeks helping rescue others and having made contact with his family for the first time the night before, he was anxious to get to them,” Sister Hollis recalled. “Looking in his eyes, one could see that he had been totally drained physically and emotionally by what he had seen and experienced.”
Sister Hollis then went to Baton Rouge’s River Center, an arena/convention complex that had been converted into a shelter facility for some 2,000 people following the late-August hurricane. While walking among the evacuees, Sister Hollis came upon such compelling scenes as a woman who was nine months pregnant and holding another child, and a woman who was trying to find her mother and four children, having “no idea where they were or if they had escaped the storm,” Sister Hollis said. “People were desperate to establish contact with loved ones. The way (Katrina) happened, people were split in all different directions.”
She added that many evacuees needed medical and psychological treatment, due either to pre-existing health conditions or effects of the storm. With possible epidemics lurking in the cramped shelter, evacuees were also being encouraged to get on-site vaccines.
These people waited in long lines for food and also needed fresh clothing; many still wore the same clothes from when they had fled Katrina. A great number simply passed the time in their small living spaces while Sister Hollis checked in on them.
“For these people, you had your cot located to the next person’s cot, next to the other 900 cots,” she remarked.
Sister Hollis met people who didn’t know how they’d get their next paycheck because “the company that was to issue it might be under water.” She observed that many other evacuees were just beginning to comprehend that they had lost homes and loved ones. In trying to help them understand what had happened and why, she sought to guide them toward “an answer that would bring them peace, or at least help them begin to come to some recognition that it was going to be a long process — that there would be good days and bad days.”
After a two-day stint in the shelter, Sister Hollis spent several more days volunteering at a call center that had been established in an effort to link families with their missing loved ones who may or may not have survived the hurricane.
“It was nice to call people and have the missing person actually answer the phone. But that wasn’t always the situation,” she said, adding that due to the large volume of missing persons’ reports generated, “it is easy to see that for many months people will be making phone calls and families will remain in the dark about the ultimate fate of their loved ones.”
Less than three months earlier, Sister Hollis noted, she had taken a disaster-response course during which she was trained to fill out the same type of paperwork she ultimately used in Louisiana.
“Little could I have imagined,” she remarked.
Sister Hollis said she was impressed by the strong ecumenical support from Baton Rouge-area churches, many of which lent shelter space, made meals and did laundry. She also lauded the presence of the Red Cross, saying the organization had set up some 650 shelters across the vast area affected by Katrina.
“The response has been incredible, incredible. Wow, this was massive,” she exclaimed.
Physical evidence of Katrina was comparatively mild in the Baton Rouge region, with downed trees being about the only telltale signs. Yet Sister Hollis ended up ministering to some Red Cross workers who had been in New Orleans and returned to Baton Rouge overwhelmed.
“The volunteers had needs after seeing the damage,” she said.
This was not Sister Hollis’ first response to a national disaster. She traveled to New York City after Sept. 11, 2001, assisting families affected by the terrorist attacks. She also spent two weeks last year in Pensacola, Fla., helping people whose homes had been damaged by hurricanes.
Her ministry in Louisiana, she said, “felt like it was a drop in the rainstorm, but every drop counts.”
There was at least one indirect casualty of Hurricane Katrina — Sister Hollis herself, who tripped in a Baton Rouge parking lot and broke her arm. The mishap prematurely ended her stay, and she returned home a couple of days earlier than planned — which enabled her to miss Hurricane Rita as a result.
Back on the job at St. James Mercy, Sister Hollis considers herself quite fortunate, injury notwithstanding.
“I’m not making much of this broken arm. This is small, this is tiny — nothing compared to what those folks were dealing with,” she said.