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Chaplains help hurricane survivors deal with grief, loss

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Courtesy of the Rev. Hugh Maddry

The Rev. Hugh Maddry tours the VA center in Gulfport, Miss.
Nov. 9, 2005

A UMNS Feature
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

Hurricane Katrina has left thousands of people with “spiritual gaps” that will be hard to fill, says the Rev. Hugh Maddry, director of the National Chaplain Center for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Some of the people on the frontlines working to fill those gaps are chaplains for the 176 Veterans Affairs centers across the United States.

“The grief is enormous,” Maddry says. Bodies are still being found, and families are facing the possibility they may never be able to identify loved ones.

“It is hard to bring closure when there is no body,” he says. “There will be no burial, no grave … there is just nothing. Those spiritual gaps — those huge gaps in one’s journey — are very difficult to bridge.”

Maddry, a United Methodist pastor and former hospital chaplain, directs the chaplaincy program for the Veterans Affairs centers. Based in Hampton, Va., he has a corps of 1,000 chaplains. He has made two trips to the Gulf Coast and deployed several chaplains to the area to provide pastoral care for those traumatized by the storms.

On his latest trip in late October, he worked with the Air National Guard on morgue detail duty. Searchers found bodies that had been undiscovered for more than a month because of brush and debris.

“You think you are trained to deal with grief and death, but you cannot even imagine what it is like until you get into it,” Maddry says. “I don’t care how many skills a chaplain has clinically, there are times when you wonder if those skills are even present in your life — you don’t feel them.”

One particular incident stands out in his mind. An 8-year-old boy came into the morgue with his uncle looking for his parents. Their bodies were later found in another location.

“It is just gut wrenching, heart wrenching to see that,” the chaplain says. “I don’t think you ever prepare yourself for a morgue detail. Day in and day out, hour in and hour out of watching people try to identify bodies … it is just very, very difficult.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Courtesy of the Rev. Hugh Maddry

Hurricane Katrina left behind miles of destruction that will take years of recovery.
The National Chaplain Center was called on by the Department of Health and Human Services to develop a spiritual protocol in the aftermath of the storms. According to the protocol, a chaplain is to be present in the morgue when a body arrives. Chaplains are also on hand in the family assistance center as a “spiritual presence.”

“When people come to identify bodies, we want to ensure that there is dignity and respect and the presence of a spiritual person,” Maddry says. Every attempt is made to provide the bereaved with a spiritual care professional from his or her faith tradition. Pastoral support is provided in an ecumenical fashion if someone from that faith tradition can’t be found, he explains.

“I guess the hardest part for me was when people would say, ‘Chaplain, Why?’ It is a question I struggle with. I know in the midst of all this God is present, but helping these people feel God’s presence in the midst of this tragic disaster is a very complicated thing to do.”

Maddry continues to provide pastoral support to many of the chaplains in New Orleans and Mississippi who were also victims of the hurricanes. “In a real sense it has been the wounded caring for the wounded,” he says.

The VA hospital in New Orleans was flooded, and the one in Gulfport, Miss., was flattened, Maddry says. Both facilities are closed and the staff sent to other hospitals or outpatient clinics.

Veterans Affairs set up seven mobile clinics in Louisiana and Mississippi to care for the many veterans and others along the Gulf Coast who were displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Two medical shelters were set up in Waco and Marlin, Texas. The Texas shelters have now been merged into one in Waco. The shelter treats 40 to 50 people a day, he says. Three chaplains are assigned to it.

Since 9/11, Maddry says 300 VA hospital chaplains have been trained and certified in emergency preparedness. When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast, he got the call that chaplains were needed.

The storms equalized everyone along the Gulf Coast; they are all “have-nots,” he says. Million-dollar homes and modest dwellings alike were wiped out.

“I think we are looking at months and months and months of people grieving,” he says. “Some people have not even been able to talk about issues until now, and some don’t know yet the fate of their loved ones — they just don’t know where they are.”

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

Audio Interview with the Rev. Hugh Maddry

"It is gut-wrenching."

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