First published in the Seattle Journal for Social Justice, Volume 7 Issue 1 (2008).
Edward B. Arroyo, S.J.
Hurricane Katrina precipitated a variety of faith-based responses. Some viewed the storm as judgment and punishment for sin. Others took the occasion more positively as a challenge to believers’ commitment to works of charity and justice. In this article I explore the role of faith-based responses to the Katrina catastrophe which move beyond traditional charity in the direction of building long-term institutional structures of justice and solidarity. In exploring these themes I also fill a gap in sociological research on disasters which has neglected to recognize the role of faith-based organizations in disaster recovery.
Shortly after the hurricane and the subsequent human crisis caused by multiple levee failures, some religious figures noted the simultaneous convergence of the storm with the annual Southern Decadence festival in New Orleans’s French Quarter. Michael Marcavage, director of the Christian evangelical organization Repent America, evoked apocalyptic themes alluding to God’s final judgment of sinners when he stated, “Although the loss of lives is deeply saddening, this act of God destroyed a wicked city.” He also expressed the hope that “[f]rom the devastation may a city full of righteousness emerge.” In a similar vein, Rev. John Hagee, founder and senior pastor at the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, a nondenominational church with over eighteen thousand active members, maintained that God caused Hurricane Katrina to wipe out New Orleans. In an interview, he blamed the hurricane on the city’s sinfulness.These two recent apocalyptic interpretations of Katrina fit into a long tradition of interpreting disasters as “Acts of God.”
Despite such commentary suggesting otherwise, Hurricane Katrina presumably affected sinners and the virtuous indiscriminately. Katrina was not, in fact, simultaneous with Southern Decadence—the storm actually struck Louisiana on August 29, 2005, several days before the Southern Decadence event scheduled for Labor Day weekend (September 3-5, 2005). Although this event was cancelled in 2005 due to the hurricane, it has returned annually to post-Katrina New Orleans. In fact, one of the least damaged parts of the city was the French Quarter, where much of the event’s presumed decadence would have occurred. Katrina was equally devastating to many other locales along the Gulf Coast that had nothing to do with Southern Decadence or the sins of New Orleans. Moreover, many of the victims of Katrina were likely people of faith who were probably not very inclined to participate in Southern Decadence. To anyone who witnessed Hurricane Katrina, it was obvious that the storm’s impact, while serious, was greatly exacerbated by the consequences of human disasters, such as the failure of the pumps and levees and government’s inadequate evacuation preparation, that occurred days after the storm’s arrival. These human and natural disasters seem to have been equal opportunity destroyers, far from the hypothesized retribution of an angry deity against a wicked city.