When Terry and Marcia Watson heard last week that Hurricane Gustav was bearing down on New Orleans like a recurring nightmare, they knew the wise thing to do would be to evacuate their family of six. Just one problem, though: Marcia is a New Orleans police officer. So for her leaving wasn't an option.
"Terry wanted to stay because his wife had to stay," said Rev. J.B. Watkins, pastor of St. Rock Community Church in New Orleans' 8th Ward, an area shredded three years ago in Hurricane Katrina. "But when they started seeing reports about how serious the storm could be, Terry and Marcia decided he should take the children and leave."
By Monday morning, Rev. Watkins, whose family evacuated to Chattanooga, Tenn., learned Gustav's worst winds had veered west of New Orleans, sparing the city a direct hit. By then, the storm had weakened to Category 2 strength and appeared on track to make landfall in Texas. But "weakened" is a relative term: In Southwest Pass, La., a weather station recorded a sustained wind of 91 mph, with a gust of 117 mph just before 5 a.m. Monday. Hurricane warnings remained in effect from east of High Island, Texas, to the Mississippi.
The advancing storm once again underscored the importance of local churches as sources of compassion in crisis.
"We are in a lower income area of New Orleans, so the majority of our people didn't have the luxury of being able to jump in a car and drive somewhere to get out," Rev. Watkins said. So last Thursday and Friday St. Rock acted as a resource clearinghouse, marshaling money, vehicles, water, and supplies to outfit evacuees. The church also contacted camps and hotels in southern states from Mississippi to the Carolinas to find places to stay for about 40 church members, some with extended family.
St. Rock was able to find a camp in Mississippi that could house Terry Watson and his four children-ages 4, 7, 1, and 13.
"After that, we were able to leave ourselves," Rev. Watkins said. Now, watching the storm from the safety of Chattanooga, he's anxious about the condition of his church buildings. Located on a couple of small properties, church volunteers recently completed construction of a youth room, and had almost finished rehabbing the church sanctuary when Gustav showed up on radar.
"We're a little anxious about that," Rev. Watkins said, but added, "I'm grateful that the main thing I have to worry about is building and materials, and not people's lives."