Suburban Katrina evacuee grateful for lessons learned
Luke McFadden clearly remembers the destruction in his suburban New Orleans neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina.
The school where he worked as a teacher flooded and closed. Inside his rented apartment, the ceiling had caved in and the wall showed water lines three feet high in some spots. Mold had grown on the clothes in his closet. The wedding gifts he and his wife Meghan had just received, which had been neatly organized, were strewed about and destroyed.
The couple, both Wheaton College alumni, went to Houston to teach young Katrina evacuees. They never returned to New Orleans and eventually relocated to the Chicago suburbs so McFadden could begin his studies at the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield. Today, he's pastor of the Christian Neighbors Church in Waukegan, where he puts into practice the human compassion he learned during the Katrina disaster.
"Sometimes, it's an experience like that that makes you aware of how blessed you are, and how much crucial work there is to be done right around you," said McFadden, who lives in Waukegan with his wife and two sons. "It's helped shape our work in Waukegan, and it's shaped our hearts."
As the nation marks the 10-year anniversary of the Gulf Coast's catastrophic storm, suburban residents affected by it -- and those who helped the thousands of "Katrina refugees" who came to Illinois -- recall the memorable experiences and incredible generosity that followed the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane.
Suzanne Christensen, director of administration at PADS Lake County homeless shelter in North Chicago, remembers a bus full of Katrina evacuees pulling up and people streaming out with nothing but the clothes on their backs -- no identification, none of their necessary medications, no possessions, and in need of a shower and a meal.
"I remember going into the storage room and pulling all of the T-shirts, socks and underwear we had ... we made sure everyone who came in the door got a shower and had something to put on. We didn't have a lot of children's clothing, so the little girls were wearing men's undershirts as dresses because they had nothing to change into," she said.
Christensen praised the efforts of Waukegan Pastor Mel Cartwright and his wife, Nicole, who were instrumental in organizing groups of people to help the evacuees and provide them with much-needed emotional support.
"Obviously, they were frightened. They didn't know what was happening. They wanted to tell their story so it was verbalized and they could begin to process it. So they'd just listen," Christensen recalled.
People in the suburbs showed extraordinary generosity toward the displaced people. Carolyn Sprawka, of Batavia, a volunteer at the Lazarus House homeless shelter in St. Charles, made a short announcement that Sunday morning at her church, Geneva United Methodist, asking members to help.
"I said, 'Hey, folks, I'm kinda putting you on notice here, but the shelters got phone calls saying, How many can you take? We might send buses (of people),'" Sprawka said.
She posted a list of items that were needed, and got everything and more.
"A lot of people were going out and purchasing new things, like a set of dishes. Not just, 'Oh, I have these dishes laying around that I never use.' People were just phenomenal," she said.
Darlene Marcusson, the retired director of Lazarus House, which resettled eight Katrina families, remembers the fundraising car wash they did for Katrina refugees that quickly raised $1,000. Within days, they were able to provide people with somewhere to live, job leads, food and more.
While everything was in place for the Katrina refugees to start new lives in suburban Chicago, Marcusson said most of them chose to return home to the Gulf Coast. The winter weather and northern culture were much different from what they were used to, and they missed their homes. In some places where they'd been resettled, they were the only black people in their neighborhoods, Marcusson said.
"They were miserable and unhappy. (Louisiana) was their home and this wasn't," she said. "But there was nothing for them to go back to. They were not people of means."
Marcusson and Sprawka both remember a teenager they helped named Tina, who arrived with her mom but was frightened to stay in a homeless shelter. The volunteers took Tina under their wing, found her and her mother a place to live, and enrolled Tina at St. Charles East High School.
Tina thrived at her new school and she and her mother stayed in the area for a few years until she could graduate. The volunteers helped Tina learn to drive, got her a prom dress and proudly watched as she became the first person in her family to earn a high school diploma. Tina enlisted in the Army and moved to Texas, so they've lost touch, but Sprawka said she still thinks of her often.
The experience touched many lives across the suburbs.
"The best thing was how communities organized to wrap their arms around everyone," said Yvette Alexander-Marie, an American Red Cross employee based in Chicago.
She said people were calling their local shelters and offering up an extra bedroom or a rental unit to help the Katrina families.
"When did you ever hear of anything like that? It was just unprecedented. People were so unselfish," she said.
While McFadden misses the vibrancy of New Orleans, he says he feels "very called" to Waukegan and it now feels like home.
"I wouldn't wish that experience on anyone, but I'm extremely grateful for the lessons my wife and I were able to take from it," he said. "Katrina was one of those game-changing experiences that makes you realize ... that we tend to weather storms better if we do it together."