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New Orleans minister reports 'horrific' damage to church

The Rev. Marta Valentin returns for a first-hand look at a hurricane-ravaged church.
By Donald E. Skinner

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First Church library

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Flood waters reached as high as four feet in parts of the First Church building, leaving grime and mold partway up the church library walls. (Photo by Dick Chase)

The Rev. Marta Valentin had three weeks to think about what the scene would be like inside her church whenever she got the chance to go back to it. Last week she got that chance, and the reality was overwhelming.

Valentin was beginning her first year as minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck. On Tuesday, as any New Orleaneans still in the city were urged to leave because of the incoming Hurricane Rita, First Church sexton Ray Goeller drove Valentin and others to the church over back streets, avoiding official roadblocks. Valentin, her partner Alison Chase, Chase’s father Dick Chase, and Goeller had to take the hinges off a door to enter. The door had swelled shut.

“It was just horrific,” Valentin said of the scene inside. “We lost both pianos, all of the pews, and the floors are buckling. We lost our hymnals and rugs, all of my books and papers, my stoles and probably all of the church archives. There was mold and mildew everywhere and the smell was just overpowering.” There were still pools of water on the floor, Valentin said, and signs that flood waters had been four feet deep in the building.

And there were ironies—a hymnal found open to a hymn about “the blessings of the earth and sky” and then opening a closet door and seeing a book, The Almost Church, propped up like a caption for the ruined building.

“It was very surreal to go back there,” Valentin said. “It was like it wasn’t our place at all. And if we don’t get inside soon to decontaminate it we’re going to lose more.”

The group did salvage a computer hard drive from the office as well as some office files and other items. The second story, which houses children’s religious education rooms, was undamaged, and the group took some things up there Tuesday for safekeeping. Valentin said Goeller, whose house was undamaged, is going to try to return to save more items. “He’s very devoted,” she said, “and he’s champing at the bit to get the church decontaminated. We’ve got to get that started. Once the mold gets into places like the wood beams it’s going to be hard to stop.”

Tuesday night she met with some of the members to share photographs of her visit. The church, a historic structure, can be renovated because it is built of brick. But Valentin believes the church’s insurance does not include flood coverage.

Valentin and Chase also stopped at their rented house near the church, which they’d moved into early in August. “Alison and I lost everything,” Valentin said. “We salvaged a few bits of clothes and odds and ends, and I saved a few things from my turtle collection, and I’m going to try to get a couple of my stoles cleaned. But everything else is pretty much gone.”

Visiting the church and her home changed her, she said. “Everything shifted for me,” she reflected. “When people come back to see their properties, they’re just going to be traumatized all over again.”

“You cannot imagine how bad it is unless you’ve seen it,” Valentin said. We have a long road ahead of us as a church in dealing with all this.”

Meanwhile, as of Wednesday, September 21, the Gulf Coast Relief Fund established by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee totaled $1.24 million.

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