By Chris O'Brien | November 30, 2020
RAGLEY, La. — “Kind of like a nuclear bomb went off.”
When Hurricane Laura slammed into southwest Louisiana as a Category 4 storm on Aug. 27, it left an amalgam of devastation in its wake.
Splintered trees, destroyed homes, blown-out businesses, scattered roofs and strewn debris marked all that remained after Laura, tied for the strongest hurricane to ever strike the state of Louisiana.
Roughly a month later, Category 2 Hurricane Delta drowned the southwest community with seven inches of rain.
61-year-old Michael Harbison is a retired marine biologist living in Longville, Louisiana, about 45 minutes north of Lake Charles. As he retired, Michael turned his passion into his business – making and selling archery equipment.
But that came to an abrupt halt on Aug. 27. Although Hurricane Laura didn’t completely destroy his house, it rendered it unlivable.
“As my daughter says she’s got natural skylights in her room now,” he said with a tired smile tugging at his lips.
Chunks of his roof are missing and there’s water damage in his walls. It forced him to move into his nearby archery business. Now, he sleeps just 20 feet from where he works.
His kitchen is no longer a true kitchen. Instead, it’s a portable stove, a coffeepot and a crockpot atop a workbench.
“Come home from church, cook a simple country meal,” he said.
With everything he knew seemingly lost, Michael didn’t lose hope. He turned to the one thing he knew would always be there – his faith.
“You never know when the day is going to end, whether you are still in this world or not,” Michael said. “Pray often.”
Michael is a strong member and Eucharistic Minister of his Catholic church – St. Pius X in Ragley, Louisiana, just down the road. The church is the soul of the small community.
But much like his house, Hurricanes Laura and Delta chipped away at that, too.
“Total devastation,” Father Andy DeRouen said. “Total devastation.”
The church office was deemed a total loss. Laura tore the roof off and completely devastated the building. Debris is scattered everywhere, records are strewn about the floor and soaking wet drywall covers the place in a foamy nightmare.
“There’s just nothing left,” Father DeRouen said. “It’s surreal to have ever walked these halls. Difficult to grapple with.”
The sanctuary itself is also dealing with significant damage. The interior had to be stripped to drywall and the ceiling to rafters because of the wind and flood damage.
But faith in southwest Louisiana is enduring. Just weeks after the first storm, St. Pius X began having mass outside because of the damage.
“You look at the church, and all you see is rafters,” Father DeRouen said. “And you think, how on earth are they going to recover from this?”
It brought the community together even stronger than before.
“It’s just a building,” Michael said. “Your faith is not the building.”
Finally, at the end of October, officials deemed the church safe enough to celebrate Mass once again. The sanctuary is gutted, with exposed beams and fold-up chairs masking some of the pain left by the two storms.
But even though the parishioners are back in the building and recovery has started, the rebuild isn’t over. Not even close.
You look at the church, and all you see is rafters.
“I don’t know that we will ever truly recover from the scars that Laura and Delta have left. But it doesn’t mean that we’re any less beautiful,” Father DeRouen said. “It doesn’t mean that we’re any weaker for having scars. Scars add character.”
Character is found in abundance in southwest Louisiana. But the scars will remain.
“It’ll take a long time,” Michael said.
But time has a way of healing things, and Michael has his faith – something that won’t go away.
“Your faith gets you through a lot. Say a lot of prayers,” he said, “and that brings you through a lot of a lot of what you deal with.”
Michael reopened his archery business just weeks after the storm. He’s still currently going through the insurance process for his home and expects to be for the next few months. Between contractors, adjusters and other bureaucrats, there are numerous processes before his home gets rebuilt.
It’s just a building. Your faith is not the building.
St. Pius X is dealing with much of the same. With hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs ahead and even more widespread damage throughout the Diocese of Lake Charles, the recovery will take months, if not longer.
But Father DeRouen and the community press on and keep their faith.
“Because if the church is not strong, then who is?”
Reporter’s Note: All 39 churches in the Diocese of Lake Charles suffered damage of some level. If you want to donate to the recovery effort, you can do so at http://www.lcdiocese.org.