On Saturday night, Aug. 27, Rachel Benefield-Pfaff put the finishing touches on her sermon. Hurricane Katrina was spinning closer in the Gulf of Mexico and some churches had cancelled services, but Rachel planned to preach as usual at Handsboro United Methodist Church.
The storm, she thought, would hold off until afternoon. But by early Sunday morning, the winds and rains were severe enough for Rachel to cancel services. As a precaution she and her husband, Scott, began moving valuables from the ground floor. When Rachel took a break to shower, she noticed that water was coming through the shower walls and through her parquet floors.
“At that point,” she says, “I realized we were in real trouble.”
With Thomas, 6, and Ellie, 3, in their swimsuits on the dining room table and the dog on top of the recliner, Rachel and Scott quickened the pace of moving valuables. But the water rose quickly.
Rachel and her mother took the children, then the dog, into the attic. At 6’2”, Scott, a high school physics teacher, was the last to concede to the flood.
Rachel hadn’t panicked up to that point—there were too many things to do. But in the attic, with the wind blowing hard and gusting harder, they heard what sounded like a tornado spin across their front yard. She had a vision of a tree falling through the roof just inches from her childrens’ heads. She closed her eyes, said a silent prayer, and felt at peace.
Before the storm, Rachel had prepared a funeral sermon for a much-loved parishioner. Her favorite Bible verse was Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” In the days and weeks after Katrina, Rachel often reminded herself and her congregation of that kind of faith.
For five more hours Katrina blew hard. When the wind and rain died down enough for Scott and Rachel to climb out of the attic, they may as well have stepped out of a rocket ship onto another planet.
Brackish water from the nearby bayou covered the lower floor of the house. In the carport, their cars (including a new Tahoe) were waterlogged. A neighbor passed by on a boat. Rachel and Scott loaded their family and what possessions they could fit into their small boat, and motored across what had been the street to her mother’s house. Though it was closer to the bayou, the house was raised on stilts and the top floor was dry.
The day after the storm, cell phone service was back and Rachel was on the phone, checking on her parishioners. Miraculously, no one in the immediate membership of the congregation was seriously hurt.
The threat of looting hung over everything. “It was pitch black outside,” remembers Rachel. “We didn’t have any personal experience with robberies, but the looting wasn’t far away.”
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