Imelda stirs up painful memories of Harvey as Houston church floods again

Lynette Zaunbrecher, confirmation and sacramental coordinator at St. Philip the Apostle Catholic Church in Huffman, Texas, hands Father Richard Barker his crucifix Sept. 23, 2019. Tropical Storm Imelda pushed 8 inches of water into the church the previous week. (CNS photo/James Ramos, Texas Catholic Herald)

By James Ramos 
Catholic News Service

HUFFMAN, Texas (CNS) — The damp odor in his now-empty office. The din of dozens of ventilation fans blasting air at max speed. The slashing sound of saws tearing apart drywall. The dark, murky water still standing on roadsides. The ache of again not having a physical home to a pained, and perhaps tired, spiritual community.

“Every single thing brings out a memory of Harvey,” said Father Richard Barker, pastor of St. Philip the Apostle Catholic Church in Huffman, located 45 minutes northeast of Houston.

When Tropical Storm Imelda dumped more than 2 feet of rain on east Montgomery County Sept. 19, several feet of floodwater from the East Fork of the San Jacinto River and Cedar Bayou rushed through Huffman, Dayton and Crosby. These entire communities became an “ocean of water,” Father Barker said.

The floodwaters didn’t care that Hurricane Harvey had flooded the parish, a community of more than 650 families, two years ago. Imelda brought 6 to 8 inches of water into the parish buildings while drenching the entire parish campus with several feet of water. But because of Harvey, parish leaders knew what to do.

The day after the storm, on Sept. 20, a small crew of parishioners — those who could navigate the high waters that still choked Huffman, some 50 high-water rescues still took place nearby — trekked to the church to save what they could. They elevated statues, kneelers and furniture, emptying cabinets of supplies, books, and more to spare anything from the risk of being reached by more water if it were to return.

Fifty parishioners came the next day to continue the renovation process themselves before remediation companies arrived. After Harvey, 4 feet of floodwaters stayed inside the church for three days, wreaking havoc by crawling up high into the walls of buildings, deeply contaminating everything on the parish campus.

“We can’t get away from it,” said Lynette Zaunbrecher, confirmation and sacramental coordinator at the parish.

This time they pushed any remaining floodwaters out of the buildings. Floodwaters snaked into the elevated space beneath the altar, a wooden structure that was already buckling from the moisture.

They pulled up the carpets, scrubbed down the new wooden pews installed 13 months ago, desperate to save the parish’s major expenses, like the sound system. The organ and grand piano were all spared, but the community again was splintered by the floodwaters.

Walking around the church sanctuary, Father Barker and Zaunbrecher surveyed a strange scene. The podiums, votive candle holders, shelves and credence tables were all crammed next to the altar. Pews were elevated off the ground to dry out. Their shoes stuck to the floors as they crossed the sanctuary.

Suddenly, hot air moved through plastic tubing that coursed throughout the parish, working to “bake” the campus and clear the space of airborne contaminants.

Mass and faith formation programs were canceled that weekend but resumed Sept. 28. A nearby church shared chapel space to house the displaced congregation for weekend Mass.

When Imelda came, the parish was in the middle of a campaign to evangelize to neighboring communities. They shared the message that the doors were open and the parish was ready to share the faith and serve where needed.

New families were registering, parishioners who scattered after Harvey had returned, youth and adult faith formation programs were growing and even altar server trainings were set to begin the next week.

Now parish officials said there is no expected timeline to return to the church campus. But a priority effort to renovate and reopen the parish office, on the campus, was already underway. After Harvey, parish and ministry leaders spread out across the city in spaces opened to them but efforts were hampered by distance and lack of face-to-face communications.

After Harvey, Father Barker said, it took the community “a better part of a year to (fully restore) liturgical ministries” and “be able to give the congregation back the Precious Blood” in the Mass.

“We did everything possible to reawaken the parish, and now all of that is gone. All of our new teams, our new volunteers, all of that now is just washed away,” he told the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

Ministries “are the first thing to suffer permanently” and take “such a long time to rebuild,” especially faith formation and liturgical ministries, Father Barker said.

While there are “solid” plans to continue youth faith formation programs, “the liturgy now has gone with the water,” he said. “You can’t keep a full-blown liturgical team in place in a temporary location when Mass is coming out of a backpack or a piece of luggage.”

In the aftermath of Imelda, Father Barker remained focused on empowering the parish ministry leaders. Still, even after knowing what to do after a storm, leading a community split by floodwater is no easy task.

“We’re not looking at it like it’s behind us,” Father Barker said. “It’s like we’re yoked to this, like oxen and we’re pulling it all.”

Many parishioners were affected by Imelda, and Father Barker lost his own car to the flood. He said he continues to “lead in God strongly,” no matter how tired, or flooded his parish may be.

Right before demolition entered full swing, Father Barker searched his office, now a tall, jumbled pile of boxes, books and paperwork sitting atop his desk in the middle of the barren space covered in industrial plastic wrap, for the crucifix that had hung on his office wall.

Zaunbrecher found it first. She lifted the plastic covering, reaching over a box and gingerly picked up the large crucifix and handed it to Father Barker. Since it was high, it was safe from Imelda’s floodwaters. The dark wooden cross, with angled etchings on all four ends and knot-like bumps of a tree branch, featured a bronze corpus of Jesus Christ, whose head tilted with eyes closed as if he was sighing.

Father Barker clutched the crucifix close to his chest, at times tucking it under his chin as if to rest on it, seemingly sighing with Christ. With the crucifix, he went to another room and grabbed the parish blueprints. Before leaving the parish for the afternoon, he glanced once more to his office that Imelda, just like Harvey, had changed for him.

The waters had come again, but Father Barker knew that God would make a way back home, just as God did with Moses and the Israelites. But for now, he carried his cross with him outside of the church he leads.

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Editor’s Note: To donate to the Archdiocesan Galveston-Houston Flood Relief Fund, visit https://www.archgh.org/floodrelief.

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Ramos is a staff writer and designer for the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

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