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After the hurricane

The Interview


After the hurricane


Michael Duffy

NEXT Tuesday, August 29, is the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the devastating storm which struck the Mississippi Gulf Coast of America, causing extensive damage over 90 square miles. In this part of the world, news of natural disasters come and go, the scenes of devastation are relayed to us through television and newspapers, but after a couple of weeks initial concerns fade - the daily grind of our own lives smothers the sense of sorrow.
However, one Mayo native has had no choice over the last year but to face the huge obstacles which the utter devastation has created. Fr Michael Tracey was holidaying in his native Killawalla when Katrina tore through his Lady of the Gulf Parish in Bay St Louis, Mississippi. He had one week to try and prepare himself for the return to his adopted home, but he admits nothing could really have prepared him for what lay ahead.
“I arrived back in Bay St Louis under the cover of darkness and it was only when the sun rose that I realised the destruction that had occurred. No amount of television footage or newspaper photographs can prepare your senses. The smell of decay, the stagnant water, the site of trees toppled, cars turned upside down, it was just a trail of destruction.”
In his position as a community leader, Fr Tracey had little time to feel sorry for himself, despite the fact that his own presbytery and all its contents were totally destroyed, along with heavy damage to his parish’s church. The residents needed hope. They needed to see light at the end of the tunnel.
“The year has gone by in stages and some progress has been made, but in truth, it will take maybe ten years before the area will have made a full recovery. People react in different ways to adversity. Some came back, surveyed the damage and chose never to return. Some came back, took stock of the situation and some weeks later decided to try and rebuild their lives. Initially you wonder how am I going to face all this, where do you start and the first few weeks are really hell, you can’t see anything but destruction. But then you realise ‘I gotta start some place’ and once you make a start then you begin to build on that.”
Those who took that decision were faced with weeks of extreme hardship.
“Initially we had volunteers from the Red Cross and the Salvation Army who were just there to provide three meals a day to people because there was simply no place to cook and no place to even buy food, but they left around the end of November when supplies eventually started to come in.”
Volunteerism played a huge part in those early stages of the relief effort with people from all over the States, and further afield, just trying to lend a helping hand to those in need.
“Unskilled volunteers did their best to help those who wanted to try and save their homes. They helped clear out all the damaged material from the houses to the side of the road for collection but once decisions were taken to try and rebuild some of the real problems surfaced.
“There were problems with insurance companies as some of the damage was wind-related and some was water-related and some families with minimum cover ended up only receiving compensation of $500. These people were totally reliant on the help of skilled volunteers like electricians, carpenters and plumbers and these volunteers were simply overwhelmed with the demands for their services.”
And in these times of adversity, with people desperately seeking progress, inevitably some chose to prey on the vulnerable.
“It was unfortunate but some contractors chose to prey on the emotions of people. For example, they would go into someone’s house and assess the damage and then ask for say €5,000 to purchase materials needed to start the work. The house owner, eager to get the work done, would naively give them money and then never see them again. So along with the generosity you had people taking advantage of people’s fragile mental state.”
While the financial consequences were eventually assessed and tallied (damage of three and a half million dollars occurred in Bay St Louis alone), it is the psychological damage that is toughest to access. Fr Tracey admits that the initial ‘positive mental attitude’ and commitment to defeating the adversity among his parishioners was often overcome by despair due to how slow the process actually was.
“Some people just could not see a way out and unfortunately we had some who committed suicide, that’s how desperate they  felt. Depression slowly seeps to the surface, especially around holiday time. There was a frustration that things had not moved forward more quickly and, even now, almost a year later, people may have expected a quicker rate of progress. This can be especially evident among the men, they are expected to be the strong person of the family, but they can become so frustrated, there are so many things outside of their control. There is a minefield of rules, regulations and qualifications regarding loans, grants and new building guidelines.”
The infrastructure of the area is slowly being re-instated, but only piece by piece. The area’s water and sewer systems are slowing coming back on stream while road and rail connections are starting to reach acceptable levels too. However, the main bridge connecting Bay St Louis with the rest of Mississippi will not be re-built until early 2008.
“Outsiders do find it hard to fathom how slow the process actually is. People still have to travel 35 miles from my parish just to buy groceries. The anniversary will be marked but basically nationally the hurricane is now forgotten, if it doesn’t affect people directly they soon forget. It’s like recently, I got a call from CBS News in New York who wanted to do a piece on the anniversary of the hurricane and the woman said ‘I presume everything is back to normal’.”
Normality is still a long way off for the parishioners of Bay St Louis, but as the priest, Fr Tracey has tried to ensure that religion and the Church are there for his people in their hour of need.
“Our church was badly damaged, so we had to have Mass outdoors initially before we gutted our community centre and eventually moved in there for the ceremonies. For me as a priest, I suppose there were two roles I had to adapt to. I had lost everything myself so as a human being I had to come to terms with that. Then I had to be there for people who also had lost everything, I had to help them in terms of their dealing with losing personal belongings or even family members. I had about 20 funerals of close friends and parishioners, none of which was easy.
”One of the last hurricane-related funerals I had was of an elderly couple who drowned. They were swept out of their home with their daughter and son-in-law. The last the daughter saw of her parents was watching them being swept away in the flood while she clung to a tree branch.
“Stories like this make people begin to value the people that are important to them in life and not take them for granted and not to give preference to material things. People were brought to their knees, it made them realise there are certain things we can’t control and what can keep us going is some kind of faith, some kind of hope and a sense of Church. It made them realise that a relationship with God is important.”
Fr Tracey is relaying his thoughts on a momentous year in his life while on holiday with his family in Killawalla, close to the church where he was ordained in 1972 and across the road from the house where he grew up. He returns to continue the rebuilding of his Bay St Louis parish next week, but he has enjoyed his holiday at home, a chance to recharge the batteries for the challenges ahead.
“It’s great to be able to take a break and get away to a place that is lush and green, to the familiar home of my childhood. Around Bay St Louis everything is still brown, there isn’t green grass anywhere, so it has been nice to spend some time on the green, green grass of home.”
Fr Tracey has spent a total of 34 years in the States and his first port of call was Bay St Louis. Having been stationed in numerous other parishes within a 100-mile radius, he returned to the area five years ago and he knows he has much work to do there before considering retirement.
“I suppose I have come full circle and I now have a job to complete. It’s not possible to contemplate the future at present, I have a lot on my plate because it will take several years to rebuild the parish infrastructure and help rebuild people’s lives in general. It would be nice to leave the place in a state that we all can be proud of, to try and give them back their lives.”