NEW ORLEANS (BP)–It started as an almost normal Saturday at a somewhat crowded grocery store. Picking up snacks and water for his wife and two children, Walter Johnson, a student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, felt small concern for the coming storm. Over the next three days, however, normality fled, leaving him scrambling to escape the chaos following Hurricane Katrina.
“We expected the hurricane to be bad but we didn’t expect it to be as catastrophic as it was,” Johnson told the Florida Baptist Witness Sept. 1 after he safely returned to his parents’ home in Ocala early Thursday morning.
Saturday, Aug. 27, hearing reports and warnings of Hurricane Katrina, Johnson sent his family on to safety out of New Orleans. He loaded his wife, Margie, 7-year-old Sara and 4-year-old Zachary with their snacks into the minivan of fellow seminary students Matthew and Becky Hughes of Lakeland, Fla. The Hugheses dropped off the Johnson family Aug. 28 at Walter’s parents’ home in Ocala.
Johnson, the night manager of a small hotel outside the French Quarter, said he felt responsible for the guests and employee families stuck at the hotel, so he stayed in New Orleans to help. Planning to stay as long as needed, Johnson and the other remaining manager, David Smith of Natchez, Miss., cared for more than 100 people as Katrina and her aftermath pummeled the city.
“It’s kind of a hundred miles an hour environment even though you’re sitting around,” Johnson said, mentioning, for example, the desperation of two families so afraid of the storm they refused to move from the floor of the hotel’s hallway.
Without power for two days, Johnson listened to the single available radio station as he watched pieces of buildings, signs and glass blow by and through the hotel windows. Their resources limited, Johnson and Smith passed out what food, blankets and flashlights they had, seeking God’s direction in prayer.
“If we didn’t have each other we never would have made it out of this thing,” Johnson said of his partnership with Smith. “… We decided to be there and take care of each other rather than fighting to take care of ourselves and I believe the Lord blessed that.”
Leaving the hotel Aug. 30 after more than two days of service so he and Smith could check on their homes and survey the city’s damage, Johnson laughed in disbelief as he described the city. Katrina ripped out the walls of one restaurant, leaving only an overhang while turning two cars into convertibles and filling them with the bricks wrenched from buildings.
“It’s like the city of New Orleans got picked up and shaken and set back down,” Johnson said.
Canal Street, the street Johnson said he took to work every day, was a “river.” Recently planted palm trees, cable wires and sheet metal stuck out of buildings and floated on the water. Looters smashed the windows of department stores and ripped clothing off the mannequins. The exit for Louisa Street, which Johnson said he normally took to get to his on-campus apartment, was flooded.
“You cannot image or describe to someone what it really feels like to pull up to the interstate exit where you normally get off to go home and see a lake,” Johnson said.
Parking his truck and walking across medians and restaurant properties, Johnson and Smith saw looters using grocery carts to transport food from a supermarket to their homes. A dozen empty shoeboxes littered the street from nearby shoe store, Johnson said.
Before the levy broke, Johnson said the rushing water only rose to their ankles at the front of New Orleans Seminary’s campus. However, by Aug. 31 when Johnson returned to campus, he found water had risen so high that it was up to his chin at the back part of the campus where his apartment is located, nearly a mile from the front entrance.
Johnson’s first-floor apartment, although three feet above ground level, already contained two feet of water. Johnson said he has since heard that the water rose to the second floor, destroying any hope of saving possessions such as the eight photo albums he and his wife left behind.
Still, Johnson said he was blessed by the safety of his family and the help offered by members of his home church, First Baptist Church in Ocala where his father Edward Johnson is senior pastor.
“We’re getting a response from First Baptist Church, the people,” Johnson said “… That’s really where I see God the most. It’s not just that they’re helping the preacher’s son out. It’s that they’re being the church to people who have need.”
Kindness such as the church members in Ocala was similar to the selflessness of campus police and other seminary representatives. Johnson described driving a truck through the flooded seminary streets, checking campus housing and evacuating families.
“We think of Moses and the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea and we want Him to part the waters at the seminary so the seminary doesn’t flood,” Johnson said. “But that was the time when God showed Himself outwardly to the people…. [W]hat I saw most was God showing Himself inwardly through His people…. I think that people saw the Lord in those who decided to help others rather than help themselves.”
The generosity of those at the seminary campus contrasted with the looters Johnson met at the hotel.
“They were telling us they were going to barbecue outside whether we liked it or not,” Johnson said of the Wal-Mart looters. “Chaos had begun….We were in a Beirut-meets-L.A.-riots kind of atmosphere. It really had become an every-man-for-himself environment.”
He added, “When they talk about restoring law and order on the news, that’s because it’s gone.”
Deciding to leave while they still could, Johnson and his hotel colleague headed to Smith’s home in Natchez, Miss., where Johnson slept after 24 uninterrupted hours of activity. Leaving Aug. 31 with half a tank of gas, an envelope of cash and a pair of clean socks donated by Smith’s parents, Johnson drove north and east before heading south to Ocala.
“You see God in people doing the things that they can,” Johnson said. “… [S]ometimes we think that we have to be the National Guard and go out or, in order to help people in New Orleans, we gotta go and pump all the water out…. A seminary student trying to get back to his family in Florida needed a pair of clean socks and the Smith family gave them to me.”
Eva Wolever is a writer with the Florida Baptist Witness, on the Web at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.