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Diocese of Lake Charles

A lot has happened in the Diocese of Lake Charles since Hurricane Laura made landfall six months ago.

Displaced priests have settled in more permanent housing. Temporary campuses have been set up at two of the three heavily damaged schools. Christ the King Parish is “home” after sharing worship space at Our Lady Queen of Heaven Catholic Church. Saint Charles Center is back in the retreat business after serving as a short-term residence for clergy and seminarians.

These are just a few examples of the many signs of progress since Laura spread her catastrophic destruction from the coastal churches in Cameron Parish to as far north as churches in Allen and Beauregard parishes on August 27, 2020.

Father Ruben J. Buller said the Hurricane Recovery Team has made great strides since then.

The Very Rev. Rojo Koonathan, H.G.N., V.F., pastor of Christ
the King Catholic Church, celebrates Mass in a double-wide
trailer being used as worship space for the south Lake Charles
church. Christ the King was one of dozens of churches in the
diocese that took a beating from Hurricane Laura in late August.
Many items were donated by parishioners, such as the
sound system, chairs, the chalice and ciborium. The altar
was handmade by longtime parishioner Harold Dyke.
(Photo by Morris LeBleu / Diocese of Lake Charles)

“We have been able to assess all of our damages across the diocese at 65 sites. That includes 39 church parishes and all six schools,” said Buller, who serves as Chief of Recovery while also continuing in his role as Vicar General. “We estimate the damages at $110 million.”

Buller said there are a total of 508 projects that the recovery team is working on that will fall into categories of repair, restore, or rebuild.

“The things that are repairs are beginning slowly, but they are beginning,” he said. “It is still too early to say what structures will be rebuilt at this point. Those decisions are still in the early phases of the process.”

The recovery effort has taken on a central theme: “One Diocese, One Church.” For that purpose, Father Buller said the recovery is thought of in terms as one building project rather than multiple projects everywhere.

“We are all in this together,” he said. “The ability of a particular church to be able to address its own needs is different from one location to the other. Thinking of this project as ‘One Diocese, One Church,’ which is what we are in a sense, we will be able to ensure that there is a wholeness in each of the locations.”

“Some of the parishes that are more well off will be bearing a little more of the brunt of their own costs,” continued Buller, “so that smaller parishes, or parishes that are not as wealthy will be able to have more support.”

Meeting with all the pastors and all the principals of the schools is something that Father Buller considers one of the biggest areas of progress in these past several months.

“They are the ones who are boots on the ground, so we proposed the question: What is that you see that will be best for your location? Some of them are in the midst of looking at proposals they will be making,” Buller said.

A mammoth task such as rebuilding an entire diocese spanning five civil parishes does not come without challenges. Being hit by Hurricane Delta six weeks after Laura was not what the crippled diocese needed.

“To be hit by a second hurricane so quickly put us back at square one,” Buller said. “The biggest thing that Delta did was exacerbate the situation. The recent ice storm also brought its own level of difficulties piled on to hurricane damages.”

Another obstacle was setting up temporary campuses at three school sites.

Buller said the recovery team was fortunate to get St. Louis Catholic High School open quickly in the fall, and most recently, St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic School. Students in grades 5-8 had been sharing space at Immaculate Conception Cathedral School through mid-February.

“The challenges at Our Lady’s School in Sulphur have been a bigger hurdle to cross,” said Buller. “It’s not anyone’s fault. The type of dirt the campus sits on does not support temporary buildings, so that has to be addressed first before we can put the campus in place.”

With the beginning of the 2021 hurricane season only three months away on June 1, one of the things the recovery team is working on is making sure the diocese’s insurance policy will be reflective of what is needed to rebuild for a named storm should a catastrophic storm strike the area again.

Until the policy renews on July 1, added coverage of $30 million for a named storm was purchased to protect the diocese through June 30. It had already met the current policy’s limit of liability.

“Working with the insurance company as well as our own people is a big process. It will take from now until our policy is renewed to get all that situated,” Buller said. “If we up the coverage, we have to up the premiums. It’s a balance that we have to look at.”

Father Buller said the repairs, restoration, and rebuilding could realistically take up to five years.

“We just want to start checking off those 508 projects one at a time,” he said. “Our goal is to bring health to our diocese again.”