GULFPORT, Miss. (BP) — The 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina will find Gulfport Pastor Jimmy Stewart praying where First Baptist Church stood before Katrina destroyed it. But Stewart’s prayer will mark the grand opening of the Mississippi Aquarium that now occupies the plot.
First Baptist Church of Gulfport has since rebuilt about 10 miles inland, and has no plans this year to commemorate Katrina. The devastating hurricane roared ashore Aug. 29, 2005.
“When it came to the 10th anniversary, I was in charge of a citywide faith-oriented celebration of what God had done in the 10 years, and honestly, there has just not been any traction there” this year, Stewart said. “And so, I think we’re over it.”
Stewart came to First Gulfport five years after Katrina, and has seen the congregation endure many storms and tragedies.
“The coast has taken a lot of hits, and it’s impacted our church,” he said. “But from 2008 to last year, I think we’ve added 1,000 members and baptized just shy of 300 … in the new location.”
New Orleans usually memorializes Katrina every August, but the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined any event this year, New Orleans Pastor Fred Luter said.
“With this pandemic, it’s been difficult to even think about Katrina,” Luter said.
Were it not for COVID-19, the City of New Orleans would likely have continued its annual Katrina memorial event featuring city leaders and guest speakers.
“Because of the social distancing, we’re not doing any of that this year. Everything is going to be done virtually from different churches,” Luter said. “But it will not be the same as in the past, unfortunately, because we cannot come together. But we have not forgotten it. That woman Katrina changed our lives.”
It’s ironic, Luter said, that in the week before the anniversary, Tropical Storm Marco and Hurricane Laura threatened the city. But Marco weakened before easing ashore Aug. 24 at the mouth of the Mississippi River. And while Laura strengthened, it shifted west to Cameron and Lake Charles, La., killing six, causing widespread property damage and power outages, and forcing the evacuation of nearly 600,000 residents.
Katrina changed the landscape and population of much of New Orleans and coastal Louisiana and Mississippi, including its numerous churches. While some, like Celebration Church in suburban New Orleans, rebuilt and grew, others including First Baptist of Chalmette, La., are praising God with a fraction of former membership.
Many congregations in Louisiana’s low-lying Plaquemines Parish and lower St. Bernard Parish chose not to rebuild, including congregations on Delacroix Island, in the fishing village of Yscloskey, and in Reggio, according to the New Orleans Baptist Association (NOBA). But the Southern Baptist church community has survived and is more ethnically diverse, NOBA Executive Director Jack Hunter said. NOBA counts about 150 congregations, including churches missions, both before and after Katrina.
“For this, we credit God’s superintendence and abundant grace most evident in His gift of pastors with fortitude, vision, passion, and love for one another, and in His gift of faithful partners at the Louisiana Baptist Convention and North American Mission Board who walked alongside us through the long recovery,” Hunter said. “Our partners have also invested their best people to start new churches here. We thank God for his goodness towards New Orleans.”
According to the National Weather Service (NWS), Katrina resulted in around 1,840 deaths and caused $125 billion in damage, although official estimates vary. Most of the deaths were in the New Orleans area, after levees failed and flooded most of the city and much of the surrounding suburbs. The death toll was the highest since the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane in Florida that killed an estimated 2,500 people, the NWS said.
New Orleans is a different city than it was before Katrina. The city’s pre-Katrina population of nearly 485,000 was reduced a month later to an estimated 230,000, the U.S. Census reported. By 2018, the population had grown to an estimated 391,000.
In a culturally rich city of festivals and events, Luter said the month of August is now tainted.
“It (Katrina) has changed the life of our city and even the life of the church,” he said. “In years past before Katrina, a lot of people planned things in the city – weddings and things like that, anniversary events, reunions – but nobody now, nobody, plans anything for the month of August. Since Katrina, we have not had one couple to want to do a wedding in August.”
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Source: Baptist Press