Saturday, October 08, 2005

Anyone who has followed either my website or this blog for a year or more will recall that in 2004 Fr Tim Butler and I worked on a slide-show using stained glass images with a Christmas theme and that this was made available for use at US and Allied bases throughout the Asian theatre of operations and possibly beyond. Fr Tim was on a 1-year posting at the USAF base in Kyrgyzstan and initially the slideshow was for him to brighten up the otherwise spartan worshipping space for the Christmas services but when it was done we made it available to other bases via internet download. To this day I have no clue how many chaplains, if any, took advantage of it and my hope is that, if we embark on the same exercise this year and begin sooner, we will achieve a wider circulation.

Anyway, all of that is just background. The guts of this post is to share (I trust without his objection) an email which Fr Tim recently sent to friends, family and contacts which details some of his recent experiences during and after hurricane Katrina. Everyone will have seen the news footage and press coverage but this provides some reportage from a very personal level and I think that many will find it interesting and perhaps even inspiring. I will not edit it in any way:

Dear Friends,

I want all of you to know that I am safe … and doing well. As you know we in Biloxi, MS, were devastated by Hurricane Katrina, which was a strong Category 4 storm when it made landfall. We had no idea the level of devastation this storm would produce. Having been through a couple Hurricanes since my arrival here last year, with only minor damage and effects, I did not expect this. However, as the storm moved closer, all of us began to get a sense that this might be significantly different. Because my boss’ wife is chronically ill, I was put in charge of the 6 chaplains and 2 chaplain assistants who stayed for this crisis. So, I sheltered on base with our students and staff (6000+).

As you know by now, we weathered the storm with not a single life lost among those who sheltered here. Because I am considered “mission essential” (I sit on the general’s Crisis Action Team staff and manage the chaplain function) I was allowed to shelter Dusty and Marigold, my two cats, on base in our Pet Haven. All of our pets who were sheltered on base survived. That is all good news! There is more. Yesterday, I was finally able to get off base to see if my apartment was still standing. Since I live near the beach, in an area where there has been nearly total devastation according to various reports, I didn’t expect there to be anything left. To my great surprise, not only was the apartment standing by the interior was intact. I only sustained a small amount of water damage from a leak in the guestroom roof. My car also made it through the storm with only minor scratches. Most had their windows blown out. Many were crushed flooded or crushed by trees. This is all so good because it frees me from beginning the claims process to keep focused on taking care of my team and proceeding with our ministry to those remaining on the base.

Life at Keesler will never be the same. Our training mission has been suspended. All of our students have been sent to other training bases. All the hospital patients have been evacuated to Texas. Those who evacuated with their families will not be coming back for some time … and families will not be allowed to return except to salvage what they can from their houses. The military family housing areas sustained the worst damage. All of our commander’s houses, because they were along the back bay, have been destroyed. The walls facing the bay were blown out, the interiors flooded, trees crushed the roofs, and one burned to the ground. The other houses in those areas were flooded, sustained significant wind damage, or were crushed by trees. Many cars parked in carports were flooded, moved across streets by the surge, overturned or cut in half by trees. The Base Exchange (department store) and Commissary (grocery store) were flooded with 6 feet of water inside (about 12 outside). Everything was lost. Many of our professional buildings were flooded, ravaged by the wind, or crushed by trees. Interestingly, not a single one of our 4 chapels sustained any significant damage … nor did the Fishbowl Student Ministry Center were I worked!

We are fortunate to be on base. In the local area there is great suffering. We have not had live television since the storm hit. I have heard reports and seen pictures of the devastation, especially in nearby New Orleans. But not having T.V. is probably a good thing because it could debilitating … and we have a mission to carry on at the moment .

Driving through a couple of neighborhoods yesterday, on the way to my apartment, was heartbreaking. Those who did not evacuate and survived are shell-shocked. Most are simply sitting on their stoops with blank expressions on their faces. There is little food and nearly any water. I stopped by the local Catholic Church to see if any of the priests stayed and needed anything. The elderly monsignor, who weathered the storm in the convent with one of the seminarians who was living there for the summer, was sitting in the garage in his underwear. I asked him, “Monsignor, do you have any food?” He replied, “Do you need some?” “No,” I said, “I came to see if you did.” Truth be told, he only had enough food and water for 2 more days! I was overwhelmed. When I left I took him in my arms, crying, and said, “Don’t worry about anything. I’ll bring you food and water every couple of days.” Our mission is likely to include humanitarian as well as base reconstitution in the days, weeks, and months to come.

We are also fortunate to be on base because we are protected by our security forces (police). I assume I don’t have to tell you things have devolved into serious lawlessness here. While we are not under Marshall Law at the moment … like New Orleans … it could come to that. There are roving gangs of youth looting, car-jacking, and adding further destruction to people’s personal homes and businesses. The mall just around the corner from my apartment complex, for example, has been completely emptied. While I did not witness any of this personally while driving to check out my apartment, I got a very uneasy feeling from many of those I saw walking the streets. I wouldn’t dare go off base at night. So safety and security are huge issues here at the moment and being on base is a good thing.

I have been blest with a great chapel team to assist me. I have a wonderful chaplain assistant, MSgt Clemmons, here with me at the Crisis Action Team. I wouldn’t be able to manage all this without him. Interestingly, we first met and worked together in Saudi Arabia 11 years ago. He just came to Keesler a month ago as our senior enlisted chaplain assistant. Because we already know each other and have worked well together in the past, being together through this has been a blessing. Who would have thought that working relationship, forged so many years ago, would be crucial so many years later! I also have 5 very good chaplains and 1 other chaplain assistant taking great care of our people. Most of them are new to active duty and have never been through anything like this before. Yet, they are shining in this moment of testing and doing the Chaplain Service proud. I am so honored to work with them. Taking care of them so they can take care of others is a big part of my job right now. They are taking care of me, too.

Everyone in the Air Force is focused on Keesler Air Force Base at the moment and we are getting great support. Having to sit in the “hot seat” at this moment isn’t fun … but it is a privilege and I don’t feel like I’m doing it alone. I feel supported at the highest levels. Speaking of that, I have asked Air Staff (those at the top) for Chaplain Service relief. I hope to be getting 6 teams (a team consists of 1 chaplain and 1 chaplain assistant) in a few days. They will augment my team, providing relief for all of us and a chance for 2 of my chaplains who had their families shelter with them here to relocate them elsewhere, get their kids in school, and then return to the base to continue our recovery and reconstitution. Life for them, as well as for all our personnel who evacuated, is drastically changed … and will be challenging over the next 2 years. All will be separated from their families for the remainder of their assignment here.

While the base is somewhat of an oasis at this point, because the clean up on base has gone well and the reconstruction is beginning, outside the gate is still a warzone. I live near the beach (about 3 city blocks in) ... so, I see it daily as I go to and from work. Overall, it has been an exhausting experience. My emotions are still raw ... but my experiences are rich. What a blessing to be a priest at this time and in this place!

As you can imagine, God has been the only "still point" for me this last month. In fact, all of us who are struggling through this human tragedy know something clearly … something we all sometimes forget: God is our only sure hope in this constantly changing world! May you know His love deeply today and may that knowledge lead you to place God first in your life … and glorify Him in everything you do …

Please keep the prayers coming. I cannot do this without you … and I feel genuinely sustained by your love and faith.


Fr. Tim