CANANDAIGUA — Neighborhoods in New Orleans and the surrounding areas no longer are under water, but that does not mean life is back to normal for the people who live there, Father Warren Cooper recently told students at St. Mary School.
Father Cooper is pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Marrero, La., which is located across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. The parish and its adjoining grade school and high school were severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast region Aug. 29, 2005.
Father Cooper traveled to Victor Sept. 15 and spent nine days talking and presiding at Masses at St. Mary school and parish, as well as the parishes of St. Patrick in Victor, St. Dominic in Shortsville, St. Felix and St. Francis in Clifton Springs and Phelps, and St. Bridget/St. Joseph in East Bloomfield. He visited the region to thank people for sending volunteers and financial support to the hurricane-stricken areas, and asked students and parishioners to continue to pray for the people affected by the hurricane.
More than a year has passed since the hurricane hit, so it’s easy to think life has returned to normal, but nothing could be further from the truth, he told St. Mary students during his Sept. 22 visit.
“There are still whole sections of the city that don’t have running water in them right now. There’s still whole sections of the city that are black at night,” Father Cooper said. “It’s like driving through a ghost town. It’s really eerie and frightening.”
Father Cooper was one of many priests who did not evacuate before the hurricane struck, although he hadn’t planned on staying. The mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana had asked the archbishop of the Archdiocese of New Orleans to evacuate in order to set a good example for his Catholic followers, Father Cooper said. In turn, the archbishop asked his priests to evacuate as well, and Father Cooper planned to leave with his Shih Tzu puppy, Rambo.
As he was packing his car, however, he heard a helicopter landing at nearby West Jefferson Medical Center and thought of all the people there who would need a priest if the hurricane was as severe as had been predicted.
“So I stayed. I said, ‘Rambo, we’re going to weather this one out.’ I brought him back into the house and we battened things down,” Father Cooper told students.
Father Cooper filled his bathtub and several buckets with fresh water and got several coal-oil lamps ready, and at about 1:30 the next morning, the power went out. He listened to the hurricane-force winds during the night and at one point heard a noise like a train rumbling by. Soldiers with the National Guard later told him the winds that hit his church were between 150 and 180 miles an hour, he said.
When the hurricane passed, Father Cooper found 6 to 8 inches of water in the church and nearly 2 feet of water in the parish schools. Roofs were damaged, pews were destroyed, windows were blown out, and a quarter-inch thick piece of glass had become lodged in the side of a 6-foot-tall sculpture of the crucified Jesus, he said.
As bad as the physical damage to his parish was, lack of electricity was a more immediate problem for Father Cooper. There was no water or air conditioning, it was stiflingly hot in the rectory, and the darkness was oppressive and scary, he said. During the next few weeks looters took advantage of the darkness and damaged buildings that were easy to break into.
One night, looters even came into the rectory, where a tree had crashed through a sliding-glass door and into an office, Father Cooper said. He was sitting in the kitchen with Rambo — who despite his name only weighs about 14 pounds — when the dog suddenly started to growl and ran down the hall toward the office. Father Cooper followed the dog, calling his name, and when he reached the dark office he heard rustling noises as one or more people left through the broken door.
“They didn’t know what kind of dog was attached to that bark, so they hauled it,” Father Cooper said. “I guess they thought it was going to be some kind of ferocious beast. They didn’t realize Rambo could have licked them to death, and not much else.”
After that experience, Father Cooper blockaded the office door with chairs.
Although they were heavily damaged, the parish schools were reopened by early October. The parish concentrated on reopening them before the church knowing the schools would provide students with a much-needed sense of stability. The reopened schools took in as many students as possible, regardless of whether the children came from Catholic, private or public schools.
“If we could fit them in safely, we took them,” Father Cooper said.
Although the schools are open and life is going on for his parishioners, their new life is very different from the one they once knew, he added.
“Even though it’s been a year and almost two months since the hurricane hit, we’re still not out of the woods, and we really need your help,” he said. “Please remember us in your prayers. It’s very important, because in Christ we’re one. When we pray for one another, Jesus hears us and helps us.”
Many people have donated generously to hurricane-relief efforts, and Father Cooper and his parishioners are very grateful to those people. They realize that not everyone has extra money to donate, however, but everyone can spare a few moments to pray a simple Our Father, Hail Mary or Glory Be, Father Cooper said.
“I’ve gotten through this last year knowing that there were people praying for me and my parish,” he added.
Father Cooper also encouraged the students to pray for Michael Nolan, a young boy who joined the school’s second grade for several months last year when his family fled from the hurricane. Although Michael and his family have returned to the Lakeview area of New Orleans — which sustained severe flooding and damage — they still need to know people in Canandaigua are thinking of them and praying for them, he said.