LAKE CATHERINE, La. — The night sky heaved like a living thing as Fire Chief Joe Perez took another slow cruise in the rescue truck down the two-lane road snaking across this town in the last patch of marsh standing between New Orleans and an angry Gulf of Mexico.
It was his final check before he, too, holed up in a safe haven just ahead of Hurricane Katrina.
On his dashboard, the radio was silent. His firefighters had left after a frantic weekend of tying down skiffs, helping folks pack up before the gusts and water arrived, getting fire trucks and equipment out of harm's way.
Perez slowed and drove down the shell road to St. Nicholas of Myra Church. Sure enough, Father Arthur Ginart was still at his simple steel-frame and brick veneer church built against a backdrop of marsh.
Katrina had developed into a Category 5 monster that nearly filled the Gulf on satellite images, and the hellish storm was due to make landfall within 12 hours. It was clear, though, that the 64-year-old priest, limping on prosthetic knees, was digging in, not leaving. Perez got out and walked over.
"You know I may not be able to come back," he said, trying one last time to get the stubborn priest to flee. "This is crazy. You've got to go. There's no telling what this storm's going to do."
"Joe," Ginart said patiently, "I've already told you. No cher, I'm staying. If it's God's will, I'll get washed away. If it's God's will, I'll go down with the church."
The chief nodded. He knew "Father Red" — as the carrot-topped clergyman had come to be known to his flock — well enough to accept defeat.
"I've got one of you all's radios, you know," the priest said reassuringly.
"Father Red, that radio is not going to do you any good."
"I'll see you tomorrow."
Perez nodded and said goodbye.
Among the missing
It has been five years since Katrina swept across Lake Catherine, and Father Red remains among the missing.
For a society that craves closure and prides itself on leaving no one behind, the precise death toll from the August 2005 storm remains frustratingly elusive.
There are big differences, in the hundreds, between estimates of how many people perished. The confirmed toll stands at just over 1,800, mostly from Louisiana.Story: La. residents rid grief in symbolic Katrina burial
In Louisiana, 135 are, like Ginart, still officially categorized as missing (the Mississippi number stands at just three). But who died where and when is still a mystery in many cases.
By contrast, nearly every victim is accounted for after the 2001 suicide attacks on the World Trade Center. Workers sifted through tons of wreckage for traces of human tissue and bone against which DNA samples — extracted from toothbrushes, combs, clothing — were compared.
Some of those same techniques were used in Katrina's aftermath. But the two disasters were very different. While debris from the Twin Towers was largely confined to Lower Manhattan, Katrina's havoc was spread across three states and over more than 500 miles of coastline.
The story of the dead is told, in part, at the end of Canal Street, near New Orleans' famous "Cities of the Dead," where a mausoleum honors the remains of 80 Katrina victims. Half of them are people who were identified, but whose families either couldn't be found or didn't want to claim them; and the other half remain unknown.
"New Orleans has been a city for decades where people try to get lost in for various reasons," says Orleans Parish Coroner Frank Minyard.
And when Katrina hit, there were many lost people. Minyard's staff has done a remarkable job tracking them down. He maintains DNA profiles for all of the unknown dead, and anyone can come in and submit a cheek swab to be checked against the genetic files. None to date has produced a match, and Minyard says, "Nobody has come along in this past year."
Father Red was not one of those trying to lose himself. If anything, he saw his job as finding the lost.
Not born a saint
Sitting on an old land bridge between the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast, the tiny town of Lake Catherine had long ago learned to make peace with the water.
The original town — home to railroad workers, trappers, hunters and fishermen — was wiped out during a hurricane in 1915. Thirty-five people died, but the town was rebuilt and became home to a number of hunting and fishing clubs.
When Arthur Ginart (pronounced G'nart) arrived in town in 1976, the church of St. Nicholas of Myra — the patron saint of sailors and travelers, as well as the model for Santa Claus — was just five years old. Sitting on a concrete slab atop a big oyster shell mound, the sanctuary was built to keep up with the city's growing population and to meet the spiritual needs of the wild bunch out here.
Demographers might lump Lake Catherine into the New Orleans metropolitan area, and it does lie within the city limits. But with its bleary-eyed fishermen and toothless alligator hunters eating armadillo stew and sucking down beers at Crazy Al's bar on Sunday mornings, it's a world away.
Patrons still chuckle at the memory of Father Red storming in one Sunday while a porno film was playing on the TV over the bar.
"Just turn it off during Mass," the bearded clergyman pleaded. The bar complied.
Ginart wasn't exactly born a saint himself.
Having grown up in New Orleans' blue-collar Bywater district, Ginart boasted he once took a train for a little joyride when he was a boy. He smoked and cursed and flirted with alcoholism.
Perhaps all that explained his easy way with the fishermen, trappers and factory workers who made up his flock. He looked his parishioners right in the eye, and kept things short and simple — especially his sermons.
"If I can't say what I want to say in five minutes, it's not worth it," he once said. "People stop listening after four minutes."
Fisherman Pete Gerica remembers Ginart was fond of saying his drinking days taught forbearance: "Bear the cross. Ask the Lord for help, shake it."
And everybody remembered Father Red — whose eyebrows were really the only things still "red" about him besides his ruddy complexion — as a football fan, a die-hard for "dem New Orleans Saints."
Back before they were Super Bowl champs, some called the hapless team the "Aints" and in shame would pull paper bags over their heads. Ginart kept a bag with eyeholes under the altar and was known to slip it on during Mass when the occasion called. He christened the path down to his church "Saints Avenue" and an adjoining street "Who Dat Lane."
Katrina barreled toward La.
The evening of Saturday, Aug. 27, 2005, Ginart stood at the church's front door greeting his parishioners.
Water was already creeping in over the back yard of the church, just as it had nearly three weeks earlier when Hurricane Cindy came through. The church grounds got soggy just about every high tide, but everyone knew this was different.
There was still some light in the sky, but the first of Katrina's wind bands loomed on the horizon. The hurricane was heading straight toward Lake Catherine, outside the levee system that protected most of New Orleans proper.
Inside St. Nicholas, air conditioning units worked hard to keep the place cool. Outside, the marsh was alive with the sounds of screeching insects. As usual, Father Red's sermon was brief and comforting. He spoke of the approaching storm, then blessed the 125 or so worshippers and wished them the best.
Gerica and some others went across the lake to have dinner at Applebee's. Father Red headed for the modest 1950s-era mobile home adjoining the church where he received parishioners, slept and listened to his old-school jukebox.
And Katrina, with roaring winds and surging seas, barreled across the Gulf toward Louisiana.
At first, Michael Ginart didn't know whether his uncle and godfather had stayed behind for the storm. When he arrived in Lake Catherine that Friday after Katrina and saw the wreckage, he could only hope.
As he and two friends made their way to the church, heaps of marsh grass, boats, belongings and bits of homes blocked their path. Katrina's surge had reached about 20 feet here, flooding even fishing camps built atop sturdy pilings.
After picking their way along swollen canals and through back bayous, they finally reached St. Nicholas. It looked as if a bomb had gone off inside.
Walls and doors were blown out. Father Red's trailer was gone.
When Ginart spotted the little orange-red Dodge Neon resting in the marsh, he knew his uncle hadn't left. He loved that car and never would have left it behind.
No one in the close-knit community believed the priest could have made it. But his nephew couldn't just accept that the marsh had taken him.
Ginart, a lawyer, called the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. By June 2006, a forensic pathologist had been hired to spend days scouring the marshes, cypress stands, ponds and bayous near the church.
He found a few personal effects — a couple of photos, a lighter Father Red had saved from his smoking days, one of the priest's numerous jumpsuits.
Others joined the search. In the grass, a searcher found one of Father Red's favorite coffee cups, which had sat behind the priest's desk in the trailer. Corpse-sniffing dogs uncovered more personal items, but no bones.
Minyard's office compared the DNA from family members' hair follicles with his database of unclaimed victims. On more than one occasion, Michael Ginart was summoned — for example, to see if the serial numbers from Father Red's knee replacements matched items that had come in.
Under Louisiana law, seven years must generally have passed before a judge can declare someone "dead in absentia." However, Father Red was declared "presumed dead" on May 17, 2010, under a post-Katrina law that shortened the period to two years for those missing from the storm.
Since the storm, friends of Father Red haven't waited to accept that he is gone — or to honor his memory.
He was a volunteer firefighter in Terrytown and Fort Pike, a station up the road from St. Nicholas, and was trained as an emergency medical technician. He served as the auxiliary chaplain for the New Orleans Fire Department, and it was common for fire departments to ask him to bless trucks, firefighters and stations.
About a month ago, Lake Catherine completed its rebuilt fire house, and it was dedicated to Father Red.
Last week, hundreds of people and New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond gathered at a New Orleans church for a somber memorial service in the priest's honor. His portrait was blessed with holy water and then hung on the wall inside the new suburban church in Katrina-scarred eastern New Orleans, where his old flock now prays.
St. Nicholas remains closed. Sitting amid the thrushes and cracking mud flats, the empty shell is slowly succumbing to the natural forces set in motion by the storm. For months after Katrina, dragonflies buzzed through its open walls and animals nested in the church. The archdiocese eventually mothballed St. Nicholas, erecting exterior corrugated walls.
The grassy slope where Father Red's trailer once stood is strewn with debris — including a rusty electric piano, warped records from the priest's jukebox and the remains of his famously prodigious collection of Betamax videocassettes.
Inside the dark church, someone has arranged items — a miniature plastic Christmas tree with presents, a camel from a Nativity scene, a votive candle — on the floor as if waiting for the priest's return.
When the archdiocese announced plans around 2000 to close St. Nicholas as part of a restructuring, 250 people turned out to prove to the visiting archbishop that this was an active parish. The church hierarchy backed down, but the priest told his nephew to "keep a room for me" just in case. If the church were to close his parish, he said, he'd leave the priesthood.
There is talk of opening the church up someday as a camp for children.
"Father Red would have liked that," his nephew says.
After Katrina, his flock was at a loss for what to do without their shepherd. His absence is still keenly felt.
Alice Major went to St. Nicholas every day to pray. If the septuagenarian wasn't on her knees, she was in the kitchen baking Easter pastries or helping the Altar Society with Christmas dinner.
In the months after the storm, a Mass at a suburban and sterile church in New Orleans east only left her depressed. When she got home, she wept.
"I cry because I miss him," says Major, who keeps two crucifixes Father Red blessed for her close to her heart. "I miss our church. There will never be another Father Red."
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