NEW ORLEANS (BP)–The first week in October was a week of emotional highs and lows for the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary family. Joy mingled with pain and loss. Tears mixed with laughter and hope.
During the long week, the seminary community reached two major milestones in efforts to recover from Hurricane Katrina.
On Oct. 3, NOBTS launched its reformatted classes for on-campus students. This new beginning was one step on the road to healing for the seminary. But the long road to healing also went through New Orleans. On Oct. 5, professors and staff members began returning to campus to sift through their belongings.
NOBTS President Chuck Kelley praised the strength of character he saw on campus during the five difficult days the campus was open. He said the attitude of those who lost everything was a testimony to deep faith Jesus Christ.
“These days are a time of grieving and loss for us all,” Kelley said. “But you could see and feel the foundation of faith undergirding the sorrow.”
Those who returned faced long, hard days of sorting, cleaning and moving their possessions out of New Orleans to storage units scattered across the Southeast. Along the streets lined with moving vans, seminary residents sat in front of tubs with water and bleach solution dipping their dishes and glass items and laying them out to dry. Others tried to salvage furniture by hosing pieces off with power washers.
“It’s as bad as we feared, but we are saving a few mementos,” said Ken Taylor, professor of urban missions. “Through all of this God has been faithful. We’ve felt His presence and His hand of comfort.”
The disaster was especially hard for Taylor who ministers in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods through his work as an urban missions professor. He also pastors Elysian Fields Baptist Church in the hard-hit Gentilly neighborhood.
Taylor has driven through the neighborhoods where he served looking for any of the people he has shared his life with. He still doesn’t know the status of his church members. Not knowing about the people he cares about is as hard as the losses.
“We know these are just things,” he said, pointing to a small pile of rescued items on the sidewalk. “There will be brighter days. God is going to do a great work here, but today is hard.”
As Taylor’s wife, Sheila, walked through their home, she saw many treasured items in ruins. One of those losses was a large, framed photograph of her father. Sheila’s father died before she was born. Losing the photograph was difficult.
But Sheila did find a few treasures. A John Wayne figurine purchased for a dear friend was high and dry. Also safe was her son’s “Most Christian Athlete Award” plaque from Mississippi College. However, most of their possessions were lost.
The Taylors’ home, along with most first-floor dwellings on campus, was filled with black mold. The mold spread over the walls and to the ceilings in many apartments and homes. The smell was overwhelming -– unbearable without a surgical mask.
“It was worse than I thought it would be,” said Jennifer Tipper, an undergraduate student from Georgia. “There was mold all over the walls where it wasn’t even wet.”
During the worst of the flooding, Tipper’s first-floor dorm room in Carey Hall had about two feet of water. However, in the five weeks since the hurricane, mold flourished, climbing at least three feet above the water line. A sharp odor filled the small room.
The hardest loss for Tipper was a mission journal from her recent trip to a closed country. The journal, which she left on the floor by her bed, was soaked and moldy -– ruined.
With all the sadness of the day, Tipper enjoyed reuniting with the other students. She said the hardest part of the disaster was being away from her friends. Such reunions were common throughout the campus.
Neighbors visited, encouraged each other, prayed and passed out hugs during rest breaks. At the Manor Apartments, second-floor residents showed love for their neighbors in a tangible way -– they gave away some of their furniture and household items to those who had lost everything on the first floor. It was a scene repeated throughout campus.
As bad as the first floors of homes and apartments looked, the second floors stood in stark contrast. Many apartments on the upper floors looked the same as the day residents evacuated. However, these second-floor dwellings did have a strong odor as well. Other top-floor apartments received water damage -– and mold -– from roof damage caused by Katrina’s high winds.
Odd things happened during the flood. One child’s wagon floated over three blocks from his apartment. In some second-floor apartments, foul brown flood water backed up through the washing machine drains, leaving a surprise for those attempting to move their washers. Refrigerators and other heavy items floated around in flooded apartments and homes.
One of Audra Funderburk’s treasured items, a high school graduation scarf from her days as a missionary kid in Africa, was sealed in a ZipLock bag inside a plastic container. As the waters rose, the container floated and the scarf remained dry and mold-free.
For some residents, just getting to campus with a truck was a challenge. Rental trucks and trailers were hard to come by in parts of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Many rental fleets were decimated by the hurricane and resulting floods.
Rick Morton, assistant professor of Christian education ministry, borrowed a truck and trailer from friends in Birmingham, Ala. Before he made it very far, a tire blew out on the trailer. Twice the trailer unhitched as he and his wife drove to New Orleans. As he worked to fix the hitch problem, Morton cut his finger so severely that he needed stitches. On campus, he arrived to a flooded, moldy faculty home with little to salvage.
“I think I’m in shock,” Morton said. “Right now I don’t feel that much. It’s just overwhelming.”
After all he had been through, Morton was still able to smile, laugh and praise God. He joked that the trailer problems helped prepare him for the remainder of his trek’s challenges.
Disaster relief volunteers from the North American Mission Board and troops with the South Dakota National Guard helped seminary families with packing and moving. Men and women from the National Guard packed dishes in student apartments and carried boxes to waiting trucks. Disaster relief volunteers brought cold water, packed boxes and encouraged campus residents throughout the long days.
Members of the seminary family who did not live on campus also came to help. Mitch Hamilton, an NOBTS graduate and trustee from Colorado, helped seminary families move out each day. Faculty members who lived off-campus came to help their colleagues and students with their difficult task. President Kelley walked around campus praying with the hurting families.
To help with the emotional needs of the seminary family, volunteer counselors and chaplains also were on hand each day to encourage and pray with seminary families who were hurting. Several volunteers from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Rapid Response Team were among the counselors.
“We are down here trying to be God’s hands and feet and love on people,” said Alex Aaron, a BGEA Rapid Response Team member from Oklahoma City. “We get blessed in the middle of it.”
President Kelley warned that these five days would be the most difficult in the history of the seminary. He was right. But the return was an important step on the road to recovery. Many students left on a hopeful note, expressing their desire to return to campus after the cleanup is complete.
“What helps Christians get through a time like this,” Kelley said, “is the certain knowledge that whenever God involves His children in a funeral, they know an invitation to a resurrection is in the mail.”