Monday, September 15, 2008

In Ike's Wake, Faith, Hope and Love

Before anything else, gang, let's all take a moment to remember what's really important in this life and be grateful for everything we've got.

Since Hurricane Ike bore down on the Gulf Coast and points beyond over the weekend with 110mph winds and 20ft storm surges across a swath the size of Texas, reports are still coming in on the extent of the storm's toll. In sum, though, upwards of 4 million remain without power as far north as Kentucky and Indiana as whole communities in several states suffered significant loss or total destruction. In luckier locales where residents were able to ride it out, floods, curfews and "boil-water" orders blanket the landscape, but hundreds of thousands of evacuees remain far from home, not knowing what they'll find when they return... or even, in some cases, when they'll be able to return.

While still significant, Ike's impact on the region's largest hub of Houston was blunted given its placement 50 miles inland. But no such mercy was afforded the historic seat of Lone Star Catholicism, Galveston, where the storm made landfall early Saturday. Residents have been urged to "stay away" from the island, whose St Mary's Cathedral-Basilica was one of the few buildings to survive the island's "great storm" of 1900. In the neighboring diocese of Beaumont, continuing evacuations and power outages have shuttered the schools and chancery "until further notice."

When it rages, the hand of nature can be devastating beyond all imagining. But even as the nation's fourth-largest city remained dark and largely submerged early yesterday, a brave few made it out to pray -- and cool down -- as the Mass went on...

At the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, also downtown, about 80 parishioners scattered throughout the pews in a cathedral that usually seats about 2,000 for the 11 a.m. Mass.

"This is an opportunity, with a small crowd, to pray in gratitude that there was so little loss of life even though the loss of property is enormous," said Archbishop Emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

In his remarks and during his homily, Fiorenza called on those present to be grateful that the storm had not taken many lives, though he acknowledged that an exact toll was not fully available. He also reminded parishioners to remain calm and friendly to family and neighbors as people struggle without electricity.

"This calls us in times of great distress to have patience and kindness with one another, to realize we are going to have a long time of endurance and great inconvenience," he said. "But with good humor and God's grace and our public officials ... hopefully the time of great endurance won't be too long."

Gratitude was one of the reasons Sheila Diec, a 27-year-old electrical engineer, said she came to Mass.

"I was just very happy that we're still able to be here and worship in a time of disaster," said Diec, who has power in her downtown apartment. "I'm just thankful I was able to go to church today."

For some, the chance to come to church was a welcome touch of normalcy in an unusual time for the area.

"It's so good to see that people can make it out," said Leann Hoang, who attended the Mass with her 21-year-old son, Matthew.

But getting out of the house and into the co-cathedral had other benefits.

"We would probably go crazy without power," said Matthew Hoang.

"Yes, it's so nice and cool in here," his mother added with a laugh.

...and still further inland, an even more touching sign of life:

Pedro and Maria Chavez escaped Ike's wrath and brought "a little blessing" with them.

In a makeshift shelter in Ferris, the Houston couple had their youngest daughter, Guadalupe, baptized with her godparents by her side.

In 2005, the Chavezes fled Hurricane Rita and found refuge at the same shelter – the Corpus Christi Catholic Church. They befriended church members Joel Arreola and his wife, Maria, and asked the Lancaster couple to be Guadalupe's godparents.

What better time, they reasoned, to have their 14-month-old baptized?

"On a rainy day," Mr. Arreola said, "there's a little blessing."

Its damage still being surveyed, the cleanup -- let alone rebuilding -- will take untold amounts of time, money, teamwork and energy. But from the place that bore its brunt most, a simple message emerged -- "have faith":

A hurricane cannot destroy Galveston. That’s been tried before, over and over again. The thing that can destroy Galveston is a lack of will, courage, leadership and faith.

Beyond the many logistical things needed today on the inundated, battered island, those intangible ingredients will determine the future of our homes, no matter where you live in Galveston County.

Are we up to this challenge? I hope so. I think so. I have faith, and so should you....

The generator at our [newspaper] building went out when natural gas stopped flowing about 4:30 a.m. Water at that point stood at the level of our front doorstep. Even a small increase meant the water would breach our building, something we had thought was impossible.

That stark fact, water at the front door of The Daily News, was confirmation of what I feared: my home would most likely be under water, too.

My home.

It is the place we celebrated anniversaries and Christmases, the christening of my first grandson, the place we so painstakingly and loving restored years ago. It is the place where life happened for my family, where we absorbed the smell of food and the news of our lives both joyous and sad.

Oddly, I thought of my shoes in a confused muddle on the floor of my closet, and I wondered what the water had done to them. And so I sat down and I wrote this, and I hoped the other people in this hushed hotel ballroom would not notice the tears.

My home was most likely under water and so was your home. That’s the point. We, all of us together, must decide how much we love our homes.

Many thousands today are facing an uncertain future. They are rich and poor and black and white and brown. They are people of wealth and power, and they are the neediest of Americans, all in one place, and we call that place home, all of us....

Despite the best efforts of generations, our island once again is under water, and we must decide to take a first step tomorrow, and that step either will be to run away or dig out, clean up and rebuild.

We could do the job piecemeal, or we could even walk away. Or we could choose to make a plan and rebuild better than before, with better drainage and roads at higher elevation.

I say let’s rebuild. Let’s not run away.

And that will take all those things I began this with: will, courage, leadership, faith.

To aid the efforts along, support's being sought... and a storm of prayers wouldn't hurt.

PHOTO: Reuters(1,3); AP/LM Otero(2); AP/Brett Coomer(4)