by Quin Hillyer
Is God in the whirlwind? And are there lessons in the gales?
Down here on the Gulf Coast, we sometimes mark time by reference to particular storms, especially hurricanes. “Was that before or after Betsy (1965)?” people would ask each other in ordinary conversation when I was growing up in New Orleans. Or “Did that building fall in Betsy, or was it Camille (1969)?”
In Mobile, until about eight years ago, the Big Storm that anchored all such discussions was Frederic in 1979. Likewise, after Andrew devastated South Florida in 1992, it led to memorably massive evacuations in the central Gulf Coast before thankfully making landfall in a relatively sparsely populated section of Louisiana. And of course the central coast was victimized by back-to-back-to-back-to-back blows in 2004 and 2005 by Ivan, Katrina, Rita and Wilma.
There surely are (or were) lots of people like my grandmother who could almost track the very course of their lives via hurricane references. Nellie Sinclair Hillyer lived her whole life in New Orleans and/or the Mississippi Coast, enduring the big blows for years even before hurricanes were named – as in a massive beast in 1947 that caused a 12-foot storm surge. After Betsy did its horrid damage in 1965, my grandfather spearheaded the reconstruction of the utterly destroyed Pass Christian Yacht Club – only to see the new club blown away again in Camille. But that was the least of my grandparents’ worries: Their entire house disappeared; all that remained were the brick front steps and a few silver forks. But they resettled in Pass Christian again, just two miles further east.
In 1998, my grandmother moved my grandfather – entirely debilitated by then by a 12-year bout with Parkinson’s Disease – to a local hospital to ride out Hurricane Georges. Her husband of 64 years passed away peacefully as the storm raged outside.
When Katrina approached in 2005, my father drove my grandmother, then 91 years young, to stay with us in Mobile. The day after it passed, my father and I drove a zigzag path to Pass Christian to assess the damage. As we did, my wife later reported, my jaunty grandmother momentarily let her guard down. “I just know my house is still standing,” she said in a tone far less confident than the words sounded. “I just can’t lose two homes to storms in the course of one lifetime.”
She didn’t; hers was one of only a few hundred Pass Christian houses that remained standing, albeit with two feet of water inside. Of course she moved back, long before any “downtown” even rematerialized – defiant of all tempests, or at least enduring them (another, Gustav, blew through in 2008), until the very end (she finally died in 2010).
This is how we live down here: We bear, with remarkable equanimity, the vicissitudes of nature.
Now there are some misguided souls who see these hurricanes as God’s retribution for some real or imagined sin. (“Unfair sh**: GOP spared by Issac! [sic],” Tweeted liberal actor Samuel L. Jackson. “Not understanding God’s plan!”) Yet that’s certainly not how I understand the ways of the Almighty. God’s work in the world, through the ministries of the Holy Spirit, comes not in afflicting us with troubles, but rather in giving us the grace to respond with love and energy to whatever difficulties may arise.
Sometimes, leaders emerge from these trials. Such was the case in a fishing village of mostly Vietnamese immigrants in eastern New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. As much of the rest of New Orleans struggled publicly for several years to recover, a young lawyer there named Anh “Joseph” Cao, a survivor of the famous “boat people” armada in the wake of Communist takeover, led his self-sufficient neighbors in a remarkably successful rebuilding effort. Result: Their little area, one of the most low-lying, most vulnerable in all of Orleans Parish, was up and livable again long before even some of the wealthier neighborhoods could manage.
One thing led to another, and three years later he found himself running for Congress – as a moderate Republican in one of the nation’s most heavily Democratic districts. As he planned to attend the GOP national convention in 2008, Hurricane Gustav came and threatened his house again, so he had to evacuate his family – and then face months of more repairs. Somehow, amidst all that, other events intervened: Against all odds, he won his race and became the first-ever Vietnamese-American ever elected to Congress. He was a source of pride for his community and to all those anywhere in the United States who had escaped tyranny in his native Vietnam.
The postscript was this: Cao tried to bridge the gap between his traditionalism and his district’s liberalism, but when the final version of ObamaCare contained insufficient protections against abortion – insufficiently pro-life – he cast his vote against it despite the bill’s popularity in his own district. It was a stand for principle that he knew would be the final straw guaranteeing he never would be re-elected. Sure enough, he lost in 2010 – but not before providing a lesson in political courage well worth emulating. It was a lesson he never would have gotten the chance to teach if Katrina had not provided a dreadful canvas against which his leadership skills could shine.
Hurricanes happen for no reason, and they do incalculable harm. But people like my grandmother and like Joseph Cao make the best of them, and God can both inspire and illuminate their responses. No matter how much time we mark through the passing of these storms, our stoicism and occasional heroism are always the answers that, thanks to God, we are called to give.