A story of migrants and God’s graceA story of migrants and God’s grace
By Efraín Velázquez II
A decade after the tragic events of Hurricane Katrina is perhaps an appropriate time to reflect on one of the untold stories of the worst natural disaster experienced in the history of the United States. The story has been a source of hope and strength for some, especially considering the world we live in, where large-scale tragedies and disasters seem to hit on a daily basis.
Katrina was a mega hurricane that left a path of destruction and suffering in 2005. That record year marked the most damage ever registered in a hurricane season: US$160 billion. The death toll of more than 1,800 lives lost in a single storm, and the story of more than 1 million displaced people still haunt North Americans.
The stories that are better known are about the loss of life or property, the social unrest in New Orleans, the heroes and villains that emerged in the midst of pain and despair. However, there are stories of people who did not have houses to lose, and were too fearful to seek assistance or look for national attention. I experienced Katrina among them, and have changed their names so I can freely share some of their stories of hope and community in the midst of tragedy and despair.
A Storm Is Coming
We arrived in New Orleans as “health migrants” seeking medical treatment. This was not a dramatic journey. A plane trip to the U.S. mainland is not a problem from Puerto Rico. We were full of hope. My mother needed a liver transplant and was scheduled to receive the indispensable organ in New Orleans. At the time we were unaware of the storms coming toward us. At the hospital she was taken into the intensive-care unit (ICU).
There I met Andres, a young man who could not move after an accident had left him paralyzed. For 10 years he had been an undocumented alien in the country, seeking his “American dream.” A father of two, he faithfully sent money to his family back home and worked hard, like millions of others in these circumstances. After a fall at a construction site, he had been confined to a bed. Only several weeks later was someone able to let his wife know of his precarious condition.
Maria, his wife, could not get a visa to enter the United States legally, so she managed to hire a “coyote”1 to help her cross a desert and finish her perilous journey to Louisiana. Maria was on a mission of love and hope. She did her best to encourage Andres, who wanted to be left to die. I struggled to read Psalm 91 to him, since I also had fresh wounds on my heart, but felt encouraged by Peter’s admonition: “You have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory” (1 Peter 1:6, 7).2 Indeed, major tests were coming—not with fire, but with water.
The Storm Arrives
We have never experienced a deadly, colossal hurricane in Puerto Rico during my lifetime. In fact, most people were skeptical about any “big one,” an attitude similar to many regarding Christ’s second coming. Peter describes it: “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4).
I had been trained by the Adventist Medical Cadet Corps to be ready to assist others in disasters. However, my training had not prepared me for the aftermath of a storm that packed winds of 280 kph (175 mph) at its peak.
My father was dubious about the arrival of Katrina. He had grown up listening to predictions of hurricanes coming that would cause great devastation, but he never experienced something of the scale anticipated in media reports. He concluded that it was just hype, similar to end-time scenarios that have been proven wrong.
However, when we were told that we were going to be evacuated to the Louisiana Superdome, and hundreds of thousands were fleeing the city, he realized that this was real. We had no alternative. We were able to take refuge in one of the lobbies of the hospital, sharing space with other people from the Caribbean and Central America. We shared all the supplies that we had purchased as if there were no tomorrow. The words of Peter rang true in our ears: “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart” (1 Peter 3:8). God would provide.
The storm howled like a train destined to destroy the building. Winds pounded mercilessly for hours; then water breached the levees, covering large parts of the city. This time the warnings had proved right.
Looking for Higher Ground
The hospital at which we had taken refuge was not inundated. Half of the electrical power was running, and the building had suffered only minor damages. However, after a few days the National Guard warned us that we had to leave the place.
In a minivan and a small car we managed to provide transportation to a group of refugees who had a wide range of experiences and stories. Some members of our group had come from South America, while others came from countries closer to the United States. They had a colorful repertoire of narratives on how they had arrived in the country, Maria among them, as we left looking for higher ground.
It was very emotional to see my father clutching my mother’s hand as we said our goodbyes, even though he had been assured that she would arrive by helicopter a few days later, together with Andres and the others left behind.
What we saw was a picture of death and hope, a time to cherish the “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). We were the remnant who had to continue the journey through semifunctional roads, where the greatest danger was looting and pillaging. We began our journey as strangers, but finished as family, “a holy nation, His own special people” (1 Peter 2:9, NKJV). We all crowded into two rooms to sleep since lodging was a challenge; but food was always available. Our lives were never in danger; providentially, we did not witness violence. The Lord led our exodus as He has done in the past. In Texas some Seventh-day Adventist families took care of us. Pastors Murillo and Pagán gave us love, care, and lodging, and it felt like the Promised Land.
My mother arrived a couple days later, as did Andres and the others. We lost track of some of our travel companions. However, memories are still clear in our minds and hearts, and we hope to see them again. My mom received a new liver and continues to be a source of inspiration.
From this powerful experience I learned this lesson: Even though we are a holy nation, citizens of the same country, we are still “strangers and pilgrims” in this world (1 Peter 2:11, KJV). Truly, on this sin-flooded planet we are all illegals. We don’t belong here. We are migrants pursuing a holy dream, pilgrims on our way to the New Jerusalem.
1 A name given to human smugglers in Latin America.
2 Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations have been taken from the The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Efraín Velázquez II serves as academic vice president of the Inter-American Adventist Theological Seminary in Miami, Florida.