SOUTH BEND, Indiana— Since Hurricane Laura unleashed its devastating impact on Southwest Louisiana late last month, three words have crossed the minds of residents trying to rebuild in the region.
Not this again.
That’s been the experience of Father Andy DeRouen, a priest in the hard-hit Diocese of Lake Charles, who has been tasked with helping the Church rebuild after the powerful storm.
“It just breaks your heart to see the place where you grew up in shambles,” he told Crux.
Laura made landfall in the early morning hours of Aug. 27, becoming the first major hurricane since 2005 to rock the Louisiana coast. As of Sunday evening, the storm has killed 27 people in Louisiana and Texas, according to NBC News, caused up to $12 billion in damage, and left hundreds of thousands without power.
While the Category 4 hurricane left swaths of destruction in its wake, officials along the Gulf Coast breathed a small sigh of relief after it swept through the region, having feared that the storm would deliver an even harsher blow.
“It is clear that we did not sustain and suffer the absolute catastrophic damage that we thought was likely,” said Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana after the storm. “But we have sustained a tremendous amount of damage. We have thousands and thousands of our fellow citizens whose lives are upside down.”
The storm avoided two major cities, Houston and New Orleans, but wreaked havoc on Southwestern Louisiana and parts of Texas. The hurricane left a considerable mark on Lake Charles, Louisiana, a city of 78,000 less than fifty miles inland.
Bishop Glen John Provost, head of the Diocese of Lake Charles, expressed solidarity with his beleaguered community in a statement hours after the storm had passed.
“I remain with you under God’s protective care,” he wrote in a message to the diocese’s 95,000 Catholics. “All of you will be present to me as I celebrate Mass today and in the future. God protect and strengthen you for the task ahead!”
Provost spent the past week driving around the diocese with DeRouen, surveying the damage and talking to Catholics on the ground. His travels took him to Our Lady Immaculate Catholic School in Jennings, La., the only Catholic school in the diocese that could reopen after the storm, and Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Cemetery in Creole, La., where he and DeRouen helped a couple search for the bodies of their parents, who had been swept away in the storm surge.
Diocesan officials told Crux that every parish was affected by the storm, though some saw more damage than others. The city of Lake Charles itself had no running water for days after the hurricane, and electricity is not expected to return for several weeks.
DeRouen estimated that six of the diocese’s churches had their structures completely compromised, including a few with no walls or roofs to speak of. In addition, about half of the rectories in the diocese were deemed uninhabitable following the storm, meaning that a number of priests — like many of their parishioners — were left temporarily homeless.
Even at the heart of the diocese, the roof of the recently-renovated cathedral in downtown Lake Charles has been declared a total loss, DeRouen said.
But despite the wreckage, most Catholic parishes welcomed worshippers for Sunday Mass just four days after the hurricane hit.
“Probably a good 80 percent of our priests are on the ground and they’re ready to go,” said Father Ruben Buller, the vicar general of the diocese.
For those who need help, including those with no home to return to, Catholic Charities of Southwest Louisiana has been distributing food and supplies to parishes around the diocese since hours after the hurricane hit.
But along with the much-needed material help, diocesan leaders say the Church can provide spiritual help for Catholics as they put their lives back together.
“While we try to get information distributed about what we are doing, we also want to be that light for others. The spiritual component is the most important part of what we are offering to the world,” said Sister of Mercy Miriam MacLean, who heads Catholic Charities of Southwest Louisiana.
In addition to faith, DeRouen believes the solidarity of locals will sustain the region as it faces the long road ahead.
“People in Southwest Louisiana are very resilient,” he said. “There’s a community that makes everything worth rebuilding.”