Father Vaverek ministers to hurricane victims and their helpers

CHARLESTON — In the middle of a telephone interview with The Catholic Miscellany, Father Hayden Vaverek paused to direct security personnel to the nearest cooler of Gatorade.

He is an Air Force chaplain for the 315th Airlift Wing at Charleston Air Base, now on active duty in New Orleans. He was sent there shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast Aug. 29 and has been ministering to rescue personnel and evacuated residents for the last few weeks.

Rescue activities are winding down, but the chaplain is still ministering to his troops, whether it is celebrating Mass in tents and hangars or helping people stay hydrated. He has anointed people, heard confessions and even helped a soldier prepare for his baptism.

He was called into active duty Sept. 3 and drove from Hilton Head Island to the New Orleans International Airport. Like the other men and women in the military joint task force, he set about immediately caring for the needs of the hurricane victims. He spoke to The Miscellany by phone Sept. 26, Father Vaverek was the only Catholic chaplain assigned to the area for the first two weeks, and he had to take care of all Catholic issues. He celebrated the sacraments and ministered to federal and military personnel and evacuees. He was one of four Air Force chaplains and two enlisted support people who were there to meet the spiritual needs of the approximately 750 Air Force personnel at the airport.

Because he was the only military Catholic priest on location, he traveled around the area in a Blackhawk helicopter and celebrated Masses for Army troops all over the city. Father Vaverek said he had six to seven Masses on weekends.

When he first arrived, the troops were sleeping in the airport terminal before the tents were put up. The Air Force had also established a 100-bed hospital and put up tent cities for the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.

“We ended up with possibly 3,000 personnel bedded in tent cities,” Father Hayden said.

People were evacuated by air from the coast and brought further inland.

“All the places like Houston and Baton Rouge were filled up and FEMA and the Red Cross couldn’t handle it,” he said. “Airlines had provided planes, and they loaded people and their personal effects and pets on the planes and sent them to places all over the country. They had no control over where they went.”

The rescue personnel took care of people’s immediate medical needs, gave them a snack, sometimes a hot meal, and then sent the evacuees on their way to shelters in other states.

“We processed 24,000 people at the airport in the first five days,” Father Hayden said. “We were busy. Pets didn’t have cages. We were putting people on planes with pets on leashes or strings, or whatever we could find. We sent people all over the country.”

The chaplain said that a lot of the people that they saw were rescued from rooftops. They also had some fatalities. These people were exhausted, hungry, dirty and dehydrated, he said.

“These were not the evacuees from the Superdome and the convention center; these were the ones stuck in their homes,” Father Vaverek said. “When they came to the airport they had a couple of trash bags of stuff and this was all they had in the world.”

The priest said the chaplains just did a lot of patting on the back, trying to offer support to people who had lost everything.

“Everybody was grateful,” he said. “There were some people who didn’t want to leave, but they were forced out. The overwhelming majority were just thanking us and showing their gratitude to the military for their presence and persistence and the great effort put forth.”

He said he met a beautiful couple in their 80s who had been married 65 years. The husband had had a heart attack the week before the hurricane, and the wife had a stroke 24 hours before. Both were frail.

“We were putting them on an airplane to go someplace and they talked about they could go someplace and die and basically be in a foreign land,” he said. “They had lived their whole lives in New Orleans. They were glad and thankful to be rescued and that someone would take care of them, but they were heartbroken to leave.”

Father Vaverek gave high praise to the military and rescue people, but particularly FEMA personnel.

“If there’s one unfortunate thing, it is the grief that FEMA took in the slowness of their response because the response has been incredible,” he said. “I don’t think people can fully appreciate that if you bring 5,000 people in to help, you have to be able to bed them, feed them, have bathroom and shower facilities and laundry. And all those things were happening and there were thousands of us here.”

He was at a loss for words to describe the devastation that has taken place.

“What you see on TV cannot articulate the reality of the situation,” he said. “To see it in person, it’s unimaginable.”

He said that the water in the city was so contaminated that it had killed the plant life. The flooding from Hurricane Rita actually helped dilute the contaminants.

“As a Catholic priest, one of the things I think about is that a lot of effort is going on in New Orleans and the city is getting a lot of press,” he said. “It will come back, but there are so many small places in Mississippi and Alabama that were decimated at least as much, if not more.”

As he waits his turn to leave, he said he is grateful to the people of Holy Family Church for temporarily giving up their priest, as well as providing him with funds to buy snacks and Gatorade for the troops.

“The deacon and the administrator stepped up and did extra work,” Father Vaverek said. “They are a great witness of stewardship.”

He hopes to work with Holy Family members to find a parish in Mississippi to adopt, and then have the church’s families adopt families in that parish.

“Sometimes it’s not money that people need … they need to know they are not alone in the struggle,” he said. “If we are going to be good stewards, we are not going to just give money, we are going to give prayers, time and talents.”

His advice to people who want to help?

“Give money, but give from your hearts so people over here can be ministered to and the sacraments can be offered,” he said.