Early in the morning of August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina made landfall between Grand Isle, Louisiana and the mouth of the Mississippi. The category 3 storm hit the coast with 127 mile per hour winds and an endless downpour of rain. Areas in southern Mississippi and Louisiana were swiftly underwater as the torrential rain and wind pushed ever more water inland. The levees encasing New Orleans, built to keep the rising flood waters from washing through the largely-below-sea level city, were no match for the storm surge that pummeled them. Soon 80% of the city was flooded. New Orleans, as it had stood only hours before, was gone.
Prior to, and following the storm, thousands evacuated the city, leaving their homes, belongings, and cherished memories behind. More than 10,000 people sought shelter in the crumbling Superdome where the roof caved in, medical care and basic sanitation were lacking, and food and water were scarce. More than 1,400 people in New Orleans perished from the storm and over 1 million people were displaced from the Gulf Coast region, with over 600,000 displaced for longer than a month. The storm caused damage to over one million housing units, including 70% of all occupied homes in New Orleans. In total, Hurricane Katrina caused more than $135 billion in damage.
Local pastors remained in New Orleans, scouring housing complexes for survivors, running shelters out of their churches, helping residents rebuild. One group run by ministers in Louisiana used its network of more than fifty churches to distribute over 62 million pounds of resources through the storm-stricken region.
Religious congregations filled major gaps in the social safety net, providing human services—sheltering individuals, administering medical care, rebuilding—that the government – state, local, and federal – was unable to shoulder on its own. Local pastors remained in New Orleans, scouring housing complexes for survivors, running shelters out of their churches, helping residents rebuild. One group run by ministers in Louisiana used its network of more than fifty churches to distribute over 62 million pounds of resources through the storm-stricken region. A single Methodist faith-based community, on one day in September alone, reported more than 50 of its churches were being used as shelters for displaced persons in Louisiana and Mississippi. According to the Louisiana Department of Social Services, on September 12, 2005, over one hundred churches were providing emergency shelter to displaced individuals. Results of a survey of nonprofit relief efforts providing assistance to the Gulf Coast following Hurricanes Rita and Katrina found that 59% of nonprofit organizations providing relief services to the region were churches or faith-based organizations.
Later, on October 5, 2005, mere weeks following Hurricane Rita, the Red Cross operated 55 shelters in Louisiana, providing refuge to 13,617 people in need. At the same time, churches and faith-based organizations were operating an additional 123 shelters, taking in over 5,700 individuals. By 2006, a Catholic network of faith-based efforts provided aid to over 300,000 victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, allocating roughly $69 million to respond to those in need following the storm. The damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, and subsequently Hurricane Rita, may have only occurred in a matter of days, but the services provided by religious institutions gave assistance for months, in some case years, helping to rebuild both lives and communities for future generations. Without the aid provided by these private, non-profit religious groups, the Gulf Coast would have faced a more desolate and less hopeful future.