DIVINITY Online Edition

Fleeing Katrina, a Family Finds Home in Texas

By Elisabeth Stagg

Beverly Connelly

When Beverly Connelly D’03 first stepped into New Orleans’ Phillips United Methodist Church in early December, she thought flames, rather than flood, had ravaged it.

Soot-like black mold covered the sanctuary walls, pews, hymnals, choir robes, Bibles, even her husband’s preaching robes.

“The doors got so wet that they had burst—just split wide open,” says Connelly. Waterlogged pews lay upside down or on end, as if thrown like sticks from above.

It was, says Connelly, a “very sad sight.”

Rescue workers help two women through floodwaters in Kenner, home of New Orleans’ international airport.

The Connelly family—Beverly, her husband, Joe, who pastored Phillips and another New Orleans church, and their daughter—had evacuated well ahead of Katrina. Following a morning meeting with Louisiana Bishop William W. Hutchinson on Saturday, Aug. 27, in Baton Rouge, the Connellys returned to their rental home in Kenner, 10 miles from downtown New Orleans and home of the city’s international airport. They and a group of church members and friends had decided to caravan to Wylie, Texas, where Beverly has family.

Beverly’s sister quickly secured as many hotel rooms as she could find for her brother-in-law’s parishioners. With their group safe in Wylie, the Connellys hosted a barbeque on Sunday evening. Katrina seemed very far away.

But on Monday, as the media reported Katrina’s trail of devastation and death, “We were all in shock,” says Beverly. The following day, a relative of one of their parishioners had a fatal heart attack. “There was a sense of panic,” says Beverly. “We had nowhere to send his body. Finally, one of his children living in another state had his body flown there.”

Her sister’s church provided an evening meal for evacuees at the hotel every day for two weeks. “We fed up to 60 people each night, although only 22 were with our group,” says Beverly.

A car rests among trees in Kenner, La., where Beverly Connelly D’03 and her family lived before Katrina. The Connellys, who evacuated to Wylie, Texas, to be near her family, plan to stay until the end of the school year.

Joe Connelly quickly began trying to secure long-term housing for his parishioners and others who could not return to New Orleans. Soon an 11-year-old church member had dubbed him the “disaster pastor.” In early October, he was appointed resettlement coordinator working with Hurricane Katrina evacuees within the UMC’s North Texas Conference.

Beverly, who has served as a hospital chaplain at East Jefferson General Hospital, and then at Lindy Boggs Medical Center, had just begun a new position in an elder care center with Catholic Charities. She was in the middle of staff orientation when the Katrina evacuation was ordered.

Once she realized that they would not be able to return home, Beverly worried about finding a new school for their daughter, who had been an honor roll student and dance team member at her junior high in Kenner, La.

“But she has adjusted much better than we have in many ways,” says Beverly. “I grew up in Texas, so it is not like a foreign land to me. I just hate the fact that we were not able to say a proper and prepared ‘good-bye’ to our lives in Louisiana. I still find myself grieving for the lives that we lost so abruptly.”

One of her former co-workers from Lindy Boggs is still listed as missing, and the Connellys have lost contact with many people they love.

While at times the grief has felt overwhelming, there have been miraculous stories as well.

“One of our church members, who stayed in New Orleans with three grandchildren ages 2 months, 4 and 7, waited days to be rescued. She had no lights or other power; but her home phone worked. No other phones with (504) area code worked.

“But my husband's phone could get through to her and she could get through to him. This was true until the day she was rescued. I was sharing this testimony with a Sunday School group at Wylie UMC, when Peggy herself walked through the doors of the church. Joe was preaching there that Sunday and she came to hear him. So, she was able to tell her testimony for herself.”

She has learned that one can lose a lot, perhaps everything, and still gain so much else, says Beverly. “In fact, one gains the things that count ... friendships, faith and a sense that ‘We are all in this together!’ People helping people is the greatest example of Christ's love that I know.”

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