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How Hurricane Katrina affected me

17 November, 2010

Maeve Mc Mahon OP is an Irish Dominican Sister who set up a school for African American children in New Orleans, but suffered a huge trauma when Hurricane Katrina struck. Here she tells some of her story. The fuller version is in her book recently published. We can all point to a momentous event in our […]

Maeve Mc Mahon OP is an Irish Dominican Sister who set up a school for African American children in New Orleans, but suffered a huge trauma when Hurricane Katrina struck. Here she tells some of her story. The fuller version is in her book recently published.

We can all point to a momentous event in our lives when we were blown off our feet by a force outside ourselves and our tenuous connection with our centre of gravity was severed. Most of us became blind to everything but our own pain.

Saul, on the road to Damascus, had such an experience when a bolt of lightning blinded him, throwing him off his horse to the ground. I can only imagine his utter confusion. But in the midst of it, Jesus spoke to his heart and his life was totally changed from that moment.

Five years ago when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, I experienced my upending on the way to my Damascus, the place where my prowess as an educator would be realized again. Two weeks before the hurricane, I had opened an innovative school for African American children. Fifteen years earlier, I had been honoured as an outstanding Principal by the President of the United States in the White House and by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Like Saul, I had a proven record of success and in my case, a dream to make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged children. Hurricane Katrina was my lightning bolt!

The poet Langston Hughes reminds us what happens to a dream deferred: “It dries up like a raisin in the sun.” When Hurricane Katrina rendered me homeless and devastated my little school, I was forced like Saul to live on the charity of others.  Not only did my dream dry up but I did also. I lost my verve and my voice.

In my trauma, I tried to say the words of Jesus in His agony, “My God, my God why have you abandoned me?” but even in my demented state, I didn’t believe that these words really expressed what was in my heart. Even though I felt that I had been stripped of everything, I knew that God had not abandoned me! Deep down, I experienced God’s tender love holding me, but I had no voice with which to speak to him.

And then I found it!  A CD with someone else’s words that I could take for mine. For hours, day after day, I sat in the evening heat of a convent chapel in Houma, Louisiana, unable to return to my flooded city, the haunting music and poignant words opening a damburst of tears for all the suffering people, myself included.

To the God who cannot die,
I say, Yes, my Lord.
To the one who hears my cry,
I say, Yes, my Lord.
To the God of the oppressed,
I say, Yes, my Lord.
To the God of all justice,
I say, Yes, my Lord.
In all the good times
Through all the bad times,
I say, Yes, my Lord,
To every word you speak.

I wrote the book, RIDING OUT THE HURRICANE, when I found my voice again. But, like Saul after his fall from his horse on the road to Damascus, the voice I found had a fresh timbre and passion.  It was the voice of thousands of New Orleans children who had been displaced from their homes and their schools by Hurricane Katrina.

The book launch took place in the Dominican Resource Centre in Cabra, on 23rd October 2010.


Notes:

  • St. Leo the Great School where I was Principal, a named School of Excellence in the United States in 1990, one of two African American schools so designated that year, opened one year after the hurricane with no Irish Dominicans on staff.
  • Marian Central Catholic Middle School which I co-founded with an African American Sister in 1996 as the only Middle School of its kind in the Archdiocese of New Orleans has been torn down except for the gym.
  • Anchor Primary School, my dream pilot school which I opened for the first time two weeks before the hurricane devastated it, has been gutted.
  • I am now living in Dublin, trying to find my place in a changed Ireland and working with the Jesuits in a support and training program for young adults in Ballymun,(JUST) who are striving to be successful in Third Level Education.

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