It is hard for those who haven't been through disaster to understand the reassembling nature of it -- how it snatches the components of one's life and, nearly instantly, repositions them in ways one could really never have predicted.
"I was just looking to live in my beautiful New Orleans," said Raymond Arroyo, "have a daiquiri, and enjoy my Mass on Sunday." Arroyo is the news director for the international Catholic network EWTN; he worked in Birmingham, Ala., but lived in New Orleans -- until Aug. 28.
Arroyo had been at work, at EWTN headquarters in Birmingham, watching the array of news feeds as Katrina approached Lousiana. Looking up, he saw an image that chilled him: the radar picture of Katrina. He remembered very similar images, well-known in hurricane lore. "This looked like Betsy and Camille." And it meant nothing good.
"I called my wife," and he told her to start packing. He rushed to New Orleans, and he, his family, his parents and his grandparents threw what they could fit into their vehicles and began driving from the city. Arroyo started calling hotels. Mississippi: no room. Georgia: no room. Alabama: no room. For a Catholic, well-schooled in the story of Jesus' birth, it had an all-too familiar ring. He started praying.
And then he called EWTN, and appealed to the woman who had created that network, who had been his mentor, whose biography Arroyo had just completed -- a cloistered nun named Mother Angelica.
"Mother Angelica, she saved me, she saved my life, my family's life," he said. Saved them, Arroyo explained, because she told them to move into a guest house at EWTN's headquarters in Birmingham.
But he also praised Mother Angelica because the things she had taught him, or tried to teach him over the years, no longer seemed just philosophical musings. They were immediately, and startlingly, practical.
"The crucial thing she taught me was to live in the present moment, and Mother did, and I'm learning in these trying days," he said. Mother Angelica, before a series of strokes disabled her, was one of the most influential women in modern Catholicism. Her network, begun in a convent garage, is now the largest religious broadcast network in the world. She fought bankers, builders and bishops --
and a lifetime of physical disability and pain -- to bring EWTN to where it is today. And, no matter the trial at the time, her message was always: "Don't worry, God will take care of us."
"She always had a sense of divine providence, a sense that you always trust God as you go," Arroyo said with a wry smile, remembering her many mini-lectures to him on the necessity of letting worry go. "'You don't worry about the future, you don't worry about the past, you live in this present moment,'" he said. "And I think all of us New Orleanians are learning that lesson."
Arroyo is a true New Orleanian. Three generations of his family lived and worked there; his eyes dance when he talks about "the history and the music and the food, oh, the food!" He refers to the city as "my New Orleans."
And he doesn't know if he can take his family back there. His grandparents' restaurant -- Tony Angelo's -- is still underwater. Arroyo's home and his parents' home are likely submerged as well.
His wife, Rebecca, gave birth to their daughter just days before Katrina hit and is still rattled by their exodus, the uncertainty and what she sees happening to their city day after day on television.
"You take it one step at a time," he said. "And I don't know, I don't have the crystal ball."
But he thinks many who called New Orleans home -- loved the pace of it, the life of it, the very thought of it -- won't return.
It will likely be rebuilt, the pieces reassembled. But Arroyo doesn't know if it can ever be the same. And that can also be said of his life, he pointed out.
"When you're stripped of everything like this, when you have no home to go to, when you're a refugee, it purifies you. I mean, you're brought down to basics," Arroyo said softly. "But I found something on the other side of this horrible thing. Our house is gone, our material possessions are gone. But I'm more focused on my kids and my wife and my parents -- and we're all together here --
than I ever was before. And you do grow to a deeper appreciation of each and every little face around that table. And you cherish them more. You do."
He discovered something that Mother Angelica -- whose own life had been marred by so much tragedy -- wanted him to understand all these years that he has worked for her: things change, life shifts in ways you can't expect, what you have today could be gone tomorrow. Where you are now may not be where you will stay. And that's OK.
"I lost my home," he said. And he didn't just mean his house. He meant the city that he loved, and all that it meant to those who loved it, too. He looked toward where his wife, his children, his parents were gathered, starting the hard work of arranging life as evacuees. "I lost my home. But the heart of my home is with me."
Raymond Arroyo's Web site is http://www.raymondarroyo.com/.