The Rev. Luke Nguyen, right, celebrates Mass in a flood damaged parking lot in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021, in Jean Lafitte, La. The service was held in a parking lot after St. Anthony Catholic Church was flooded in the hurricane. (AP Photo/John Locher)
MARRERO, La. (AP) — Amid the devastation caused by Hurricane Ida, there was at least one bright light Sunday: Parishioners found that electricity had been restored to their church outside of New Orleans, a small improvement as residents of Louisiana struggle to regain some aspects of normal life.
In Jefferson Parish, the Rev. G. Amaldoss expected to celebrate Mass at St. Joachim Catholic Church in the parking lot, which was dotted with downed limbs. But when he swung open the doors of the church early Sunday, the sanctuary was bathed in light. That made an indoor service possible.
“Divine intervention,” Amaldoss said, pressing his hands together and looking toward the sky.
A week after Hurricane Ida struck, many in Louisiana continue to face food, water and gas shortages as well as power outages while battling heat and humidity. The storm was blamed for at least 17 deaths in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
On Sunday, state health officials announced that the death toll in Louisiana has climbed to 13, including a 74-year-old man who died of heat during an extensive power outage. In the Northeast, Ida’s remnants dumped record-breaking rain and killed at least 50 people from Virginia to Connecticut.
As Mass began Sunday, Amaldoss walked down the aisle of the church in his green robe, with just eight people spread among the pews. Instead, the seats brimmed with boxes of donated toothpaste, shampoo and canned vegetables.
“For all the people whose lives are saved and all the people whose lives are lost, we pray for them,” he said. “Remember the brothers and sisters driven by the wind and the water.”
Through the wall of windows behind the altar, beyond the swamp abutting the church, the floodgates that saved the building could be seen. The Gospel was the story of Jesus bringing sight to a blind man, and throughout the tiny church, stories of miracles were repeated.
Wynonia Lazaro gave thanks for newly restored power in her home, where the only casualties of Ida were some downed trees and loosened shingles.
“We are extremely blessed,” she said.
Some parishioners suffered total losses of their homes, or devastating damage. Gina Caulfield, a 64-year-old retired teacher, has been hopping from relative to relative after her cousin’s trailer, where she’d been living, was left uninhabitable. Still, she was grateful to have survived the storm.
“It’s a comfort to know we have people praying for us,” she said.
Some parishes outside New Orleans were battered for hours by winds of 100 mph (160 kph) or more, and Ida damaged or destroyed more than 22,000 power poles, more than hurricanes Katrina, Zeta and Delta combined.
More than 630,000 homes and businesses remained without power Sunday across southeast Louisiana, according to the state Public Service Commission. At the peak, 902,000 customers had lost power.
Fully restoring electricity to some places in the state’s southeast could take until the end of the month, according Phillip May, president and CEO of Entergy, which provides power to New Orleans and other areas in the storm’s path.
Entergy is in the process of acquiring air boats and other equipment needed to get power crews into swampy and marshy regions. May said many grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses are a high priority.
“We will continue to work until every last light is on,” he said during a briefing Sunday.
In Jean Lafitte, a small town of about 2,000 people, pools of water along the roadway were receding and some of the thick mud left behind was beginning to dry.
Shannon Lation checks on her home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021, in Lafitte, La. (AP Photo/John Locher)
At St. Anthony Church, the 4 feet (about 1.2 meters) of water once inside had seeped away, but a slippery layer of muck remained. Outside, the faithful sat on folding metal chairs under a blue tent to celebrate Mass. Next door, at the Piggly Wiggly, military police in fatigues stood guard.
“In times such like these, we come together and we help one another,” the Rev. Luke Nguyen, the church’s pastor, told a few dozen congregants.
Ronny Dufrene, a 39-year-old oil field worker from Lafayette, returned to his hometown to help.
“People are taking pictures of where their houses used to be,” he said. “But this is a chance to get together and praise God for what we do have, and that’s each other.”
In New Orleans, many churches remained closed due to lingering power outages.
But First Grace United Methodist Church opened its doors and held service without power. Sunlight from large windows brightened the sanctuary, where about 10 people sat.
“Whatever situation you’re in, you get to choose how you see it,” said Pastor Shawn Anglim, whose first time pastoring the congregation was after the church recovered from Hurricane Katrina 16 years ago. “You can see it from a place of faith, a place of hope and a place of love, and a place of possibility.”
Jennifer Moss, who attended service with her husband, Tom, said power had been restored to their home on Saturday.
“We’ve been blessed throughout this entire ordeal,” she said. “That storm could have been a little closer to the east, and we wouldn’t have a place to come and worship.”
In Lafitte, about 28 miles (45 kilometers) south of New Orleans, animal control officer Koby Bellanger experienced his own little blessing after he heard the sounds of an animal crying as he rode through the flooded streets with a sheriff’s deputy.
Bellanger waded through the water and found a tiny, green-eyed black kitten clinging to the engine of a car outside a devastated house. He hoisted the animal up, to the delight of Lafayette Parish Deputy Rebecca Bobzin.
“Bring him!” Bobzin screamed in delight.
Louisiana’s 13 storm-related deaths included five nursing home residents evacuated ahead of the hurricane along with hundreds of other seniors to a warehouse in Louisiana, where health officials said conditions became unsafe. On Saturday, State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter ordered the immediate closure of the seven nursing facilities that sent residents to the warehouse.
Edwards was briefed Sunday about a cluster of thunderstorms near Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, but said forecasters “don’t see much potential at all for it developing into a storm of any real significance and we’re very, very thankful for that.”
He said it does have the potential to bring some rain to coastal Louisiana and southeast Louisiana.
Morrison reported from New Orleans. Associated Press writer Denise Lavoie in Richmond, Virginia, contributed.
Lost in the din of the Michael Jackson coverage late last month was news that the racially charged Jena 6 saga had officially come to an end — at least from a legal standpoint. The six African American teens from Jena, Louisiana, made national headlines and inspired emotional protests when they were charged with attempted murder for beating a white classmate in 2006. Many considered the charges too severe, and a massive demonstration was staged in September 2007 to oppose the ruling. After nearly three years of dramatic twists and turns, the case quietly wrapped on June 26. Now the Jena 6, as well as Justin Barker (the white teen who was beaten in the infamous skirmish), are free to move on with their lives.
The terms of the plea agreement were revealed in the course of a two-hour court hearing at the LaSalle Parish courthouse. Mychal Bell, the defendant who was initially convicted as an adult for aggravated battery against Barker but later pled guilty to a reduced charge in juvenile court after the adult conviction was overturned, had been sentenced earlier to 18 months under state supervision. Each of the five remaining defendants in the case — Corwin Jones, Jesse Ray Beard, Bryant Purvis, Robert Bailey, Theo Shaw — pleaded “no contest” to the misdemeanor charge of simple battery. Each was placed on non-supervised probation for one week and must pay a $500 fine and in most cases an additional $500 in court costs. In addition, a civil suit filed by the family of Justin Barker was settled when the Jena 6 defendants (including Bell) agreed to pay the Barker family an undisclosed settlement. Attorneys were not allowed to reveal the details of the settlement, but a reliable source has disclosed that the payment was approximately $24,000.
The Jena High School courtyard.
What lessons do we take away from the Jena 6 story? Six young men won’t be dragging a felony conviction into adult life. That’s reason for rejoicing, but as this saga approaches its third birthday, it’s fair to ask if we have learned anything.
“Jena 6” was briefly transformed into a popular movement that brought at least 30,000 people to the central Louisiana town of 3,000 in September of 2007.
Mass awareness of the Jena story was spread by the black blogosphere, radio personalities like Michael Baisden, internet-savvy organizations like Color of Change, and the brief but highly publicized involvement of civil rights celebrities like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.
Unfortunately, the movement that culminated with the September 20th march lacked an end game. Nobody knew what came next, so not much did.
Or so it seemed.
The huge turnout on September 20th placed enormous pressure on Jena officials, but the key to success was community organizing, savvy media outreach, and strategic legal work.
My organization, Friends of Justice, helped lead the way. We started with the goal of recreating the coalition of reform organizations and legal firms that overturned a corrupt drug sting in Tulia, Texas. Long before anyone from the outside had taken an interest in the Jena story, we were sifting through legal documents, reading local newspaper accounts, and conducting dozens of personal interviews. When the facts were clear, we circulated a six-page narrative account describing what happened, why it happened, and what justice would look like.
Our narrative called for Judge J.P. Mauffray and District Attorney Reed Walters to recuse themselves from the Jena 6 cases. We supported a change of venue, a Department of Justice investigation, and a program of diversity training in the public schools. We knew none of this could be accomplished without a huge groundswell of indignation, but our first step was to unite and organize the affected community. The families and friends of the defendants gradually learned to withstand the pressure of an outraged white community and to tell their personal stories with verve and enthusiasm.
The families and friends of the Jena 6 had been gathering at a local black church and holding demonstrations on the steps of the LaSalle Parish courthouse long before CNN, NPR, and the Chicago Tribune were on the scene.
Just as the mainstream media was picking up on Jena, independent journalists and bloggers were warming to the story. Color of Change started collecting signatures for a petition and soliciting donations to a legal defense fund. Across America young black men and women were asking how they could help the Jena 6. The student body of Howard University got into the action and the civil rights community eventually swung its weight behind the Jena justice movement.
When I talked to the folks who came to the massive rally on September 20th it was quickly apparent that the folks who rode the buses were a bit fuzzy about the most basic facts. The general impression was that some white kids had hung nooses in a tree at the high school and black kids had retaliated by beating up one of the noose hangers. There was little understanding that Justin Barker, the victim of the December 4th beat-down, hadn’t been directly involved in the noose hanging incident or that the two episodes were separated by three months.
Jena, Louisiana, on September 20, 2007.
The facts in Jena were of secondary importance to the bus riders. They were drawn to Jena by personal experience. People told me they were there for a son, a boyfriend, or a nephew who had received grossly disproportionate treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system. These people had no trouble relating to the plight of the Jena 6.
When the crowds left Jena, the movement quickly ran out of gas. It didn’t matter. By that time the five Jena defendants still awaiting adjudication were represented by some of the best legal talent in America. D.A. Terry McEachern had been no match for the legal “dream team” that rose to the defense of the Tulia 46, and I knew Reed Walters would fare no better against the legal firepower he was facing. The facts were all on the side of the defendants. Another trial would have established the link between the hanging of the nooses in September and the tragic events of December. Reed Walters and his supporters in Jena’s white community simply couldn’t allow that to happen.
Five of Six: (from left) Theo Shaw, Jesse Ray Beard, Bryant Purvis, Corwin Jones, and Robert Bailey on the LaSalle courthouse steps following the settlement on June 26.
The Jena phenomenon demonstrates the power and the limitations of public narrative. Jena happened because public officials like Reed Walters and school Superintendent Roy Breithaupt didn’t want to revert to the apartheid world they were raised in, but they deeply resented the civil rights movement that had swept it all away.
Therefore, when Kenneth Purvis asked the high school principal if it was okay for black kids to sit under the tree in the school courtyard, these men froze. When white students sent a “hell no” message by hanging nooses in the school colors from that very tree, school officials insisted that the act was devoid of racial significance. When black students voiced their incredulity by gathering around the tree, Superintendent Breithhaupt called an emergency assembly in the school auditorium where D.A. Walters laid down the law. Turning to the black students who had been causing all the trouble, Walters reminded them that “with a stroke of my pen” he could make their lives disappear.
If Breithaupt and Walters had called a hate crime by its proper name, they would have validated the civil rights narrative they resented so deeply. So they resorted to threats. Nothing was going to change at Jena High School, and the black students would just have to suck it up.
Asked to explain his “stroke of my pen” remark at a pre-trial hearing, Walters admitted that he was angry with the students causing the unrest. The kids, he explained to the court, needed to “work out their problems on their own.”
Tragically, that’s precisely what happened.
Ultimately, Jena was a “Lord of the Flies” story about adolescent males functioning without adult guidance. If any of the remaining Jena cases had gone to trial, this version of the Jena story would have taken center stage. Unfortunately (and perhaps inevitably), this was not the way the Jena narrative unfolded in popular culture.
In Jena two powerful narratives competed for dominance. A “thug narrative” was concocted for folks who resented the civil rights revolution. Jena was about six black thugs doing what comes naturally and a Bible-believing prosecutor gutsy enough to hold them accountable. The hero of the thug narrative is Reed Walters, the victim is Justin Barker, and the villains are six black misanthropes. In the thug narrative, the noose incident in September was utterly disconnected from the the “attempted murder” of Justin Barker in December.
The people behind the massive September 20th protest embraced a “noose narrative,” which contrasted the lenient discipline meted out to the noose hangers in September with the grotesque prosecutorial over-reaction following the “schoolyard fight” in December. Reed Walters was a racist, this narrative argued, because he was way too soft on white kids and way too hard on black kids. In the noose narrative, the noose hangers are the villains, the Jena 6 are the victims, and the folks rushing to their assistance are the heroes.
While the noose narrative reigned in the blogoshpere, the thug narrative showed up in publications like the Jena Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Weekly Standard.
The “objective” mainstream media fell back on a “town divided” storyline in which angry proponents of the two competing narratives were given 15 seconds of fame.
This kind of noncommittal reporting left both sides vulnerable to criticism. Thug narrative people sounded racially insensitive and parochial; noose narrative folk appeared callous when they minimized the seriousness of Justin Barker’s wounds.
Lost in all of this back and forth was a simple irony: Reed Walters’ “stroke of my pen” oratory unleashed a chain of violence that reached a violent crescendo in the December 4th altercation he was now trying to prosecute as attempted murder.
What are the implications of all of this for criminal justice reformers? Are we doomed to hawk simplistic morality tales to a tiny demographic of like-minded activists, or is honesty still the best policy?
Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. The goal isn’t just to get the facts straight or to rev up the faithful; we are trying to change public perception. Cases must be carefully selected. If we want to gain and hold an audience, even the most compelling stories must be pared to their essentials.
But even stripped-down narratives must comport with reality. Both sides in the Jena imbroglio wowed the faithful at the cost of losing credibility with the general public. If we are trying to change public perception, an ear for nuance is essential. America has changed dramatically from the day when a reformer like Fannie Lou Hamer could be beaten half to death in Winona, Mississippi, for advocating racial equality. “Nothing has changed” rhetoric appeals to impatient reformers, but it won’t get a hearing in middle America. Similarly, crude references to the depradations of “black thugs” may play well in the small-town southland, but this kind of talk doesn’t work in the wider world.
The public officials at the heart of the Jena story personify the southern dilemma. They were raised with one set of rules, then forced to adopt a new rule book. No one helped them negotiate these troubled waters; they simply had to make the best of a bewildering circumstance. No wonder they are confused-who wouldn’t be?
When Jena’s infamous tree gained iconic significance, the town fathers and mothers cut it down and built a new addition over the spot where the tree once stood. This was the most creative response they could muster.
This southern shadowland is most apparent in the criminal justice system. How can men and women who grew up attending Klan rallies be expected to dispense equal justice in the dawning days of the 21st century? How can people reared in segregated schools and workshops be expected to fight for cultural diversity? America is a work in progress. We ain’t where we need to be-not even close. But thank God Almighty, we ain’t where we used to be.
Ultimately, simplistic narratives change nothing. The Jena 6 aren’t heroes and they aren’t villains; they’re just ordinary small-town kids trying to make their way in a confusing world. Their attorneys won a smashing victory last month because they knew what they were up against and honed their message accordingly. There’s a lesson in that for all of us.