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Hurricane sets couple & church on paths to a new beginning

ARABI, La. (BP)–Cindy Ratliff got off her couch to peer out the window and see what Hurricane Katrina was doing to her neighborhood, shortly after 8 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 29.

Water was an inch deep in her living room. Within a couple of hours, Cindy and her husband, Craig, were standing in two inches of water — on a second-floor balcony trying to develop a plan of escape. Before long, floodwater would reach a height of 14 feet.

Craig, youth minister at the New Orleans-area First Baptist Church of Arabi, grabbed a children’s swimming pool he had used for a youth event, while trying to save a few belongings amid the rising water. His plan was to blow up the two-ringed, vinyl-bottomed kiddy pool to float his wife, himself and a backpack filled with granola bars and water down the street to First Baptist, where he had served two and a half years.

The sorrow and upheaval of Hurricane Katrina segued into months of transition -– not only for the Ratliffs but the Arabi congregation as well.

After their “boat” came within a few buildings of the church, the Ratliffs realized they couldn’t go any farther because of the large amount of gasoline seeping out of the tanks of a submerged convenience store.

While waiting to decide their next move, the couple heard a voice call out, “Do you have any water?” They paddled over to their neighbor, Bill, whom they had never met, to toss him a bottle of water.

When Craig and Cindy got to his window, Bill disappeared inside the apartment. Then, before the couple could protest, Bill threw a large backpack in the small, already overcrowded pool and climbed in.

“It is now after noon and the storm, though not completely gone, has died down enough to allow us to move more in the open,” Cindy later recounted on the church’s website.

Craig, Cindy and Bill knew they couldn’t stay against the building where they were, so they figured out a way to paddle upstream and allow the fast-moving current to carry them to a flat rooftop across the street.

Exhausted from their struggle and from the lack of sleep the night before, both Craig and Bill fell asleep on the rooftop after getting to safety. Cindy sat in a chair the men had found for her, and she prayed until she heard the roar of a boat motor around 3 p.m.

The operator of the boat told them he would be back in a few minutes to pick them up. They would see several more boats and another operator indicating he would come back to get them, but he never returned. Finally, a boat stopped and gave them a ride to the local high school.

The conditions in the school were terrible. The shelter rules allowed the 150-plus animals brought by more than 300 people to roam freely. No water or food was available. No one could leave because the water was too deep. The restroom was a bucket in a dark closet. When the bucket was full, someone would push the full bucket to the back of the closet and find another bucket to use. The smells were pungent. People talked all through the night. Dogs barked. It was one of the longest nights of Craig and Cindy’s lives.

Local officials moved the people in the high school to a warehouse on Tuesday, where Craig and Cindy received food and water and slept on wooden palettes. Restrooms were more sanitary than at the high school, but not by much. The warehouse would be their home until Friday.

Shortly after lunch on Friday, soldiers instructed the people in the warehouse to pack their bags. They were loaded on a ferry to cross the river and eventually boarded buses that took them to safety.

It wasn’t until Saturday that Craig and Cindy were able to take baths and get out of the wet, rancid clothing they had worn since leaving their home on Monday. The evacuees smelled so bad that the soldiers guarding the group resorted to smearing a salve under their own noses that is normally used to cover up the odor of dead bodies.

Craig and Cindy parted from the bus of evacuees in Shreveport, La., when they were able to secure a hotel room during a rest stop on the way to Dallas. They threw away all the possessions that remained from their harrowing trip. For Craig, the hardest thing to discard was his mold-covered Bible. They saved a couple of forms of identification and their wedding rings.

Before the storm, First Baptist Arabi was a church in transition. Pastor David Howard had led the church to begin reaching out to their black neighbors. The church had studied the Purpose-Driven model created by Rick Warren, as evidenced by the banners hanging in the windows of the sanctuary, reminding the congregation of God’s purposes for their church: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and missions. Craig and Cindy were leading the youth group to embrace the model of ministry as well.

Months after Katrina, still inside First Baptist’s sanctuary were an overturned piano, hymnals swollen to twice their size, guest cards that wilted toward the mud-covered carpet, and walls in shades of red, black and blue — the colors of the mold that was growing on them. The sight of bulldozers and excavators that were demolishing the devastated structure became part of the healing process for the few members who drove by their formerly beautiful church home.

A few months after the disaster, 93 members of the church met in northeast Louisiana to worship and ultimately voted to disband the congregation. Although the details remain incomplete, the desire of the congregation is that the insurance settlement be used in St. Bernard Parish to further the work of the Kingdom of God.

The congregation has elected a board of directors either to oversee a merger with other churches from the St. Bernard area or to find some means to start a new work. At present, the directors are working toward a merger with Celebration Church, a cell-driven church on the opposite side of New Orleans that wants to create a satellite campus in St. Bernard Parish.

The plan for the new ministry with Celebration, if all continues to go well, would include bringing in counselors to help the people of St. Bernard Parish deal with their loss. They want to set a goal of helping 20 local families gut their homes every week, and the church wants to give away staple items and cleaning supplies. Ministries for children also would be planned.

Craig and Cindy have been planning too. Craig is working as a campus police officer at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary while Cindy found employment with Children’s Hospital as a nursing administrative assistant.

And talks are underway to make Craig pastor of the proposed new Celebration church.

“People ask, ‘How long will you be in St. Bernard?’ I tell them, ‘As long as God wants me,’” Craig said. “But if you ask my wife, she will tell you, ‘Probably for the next 50 or 60 years.’”
Keith Manuel is pastor of the New Orleans-area Calvary Baptist Church and a correspondent for Baptist Press and the Louisiana Baptist Message.

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  • Keith Manuel