Baton Rouge, Louisiana (KP) -- Hurricane Katrina made landfall here on Saturday, August 27th with disastrous consequences. The devastation and suffering caused by this disaster has not been seen in the United States for nearly 100 years. Yet, the people of this beautiful state are intent on moving on, rebuilding, and starting new lives for themselves.
Many accuse the Federal government of not having acted swiftly enough or with enough force to help—too little, too late. However, being on the ground, one wouldn’t see the controversy. Right now, many are focused on doing as much as they can to help.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has created a Hurricane Katrina Joint Field Office (JFO) in a huge two-story building that was once a department store with an astounding number of organizations involved. Nearly every federal agency from OSHA and the EPA to the Army and Air Force is housed at the JFO here in Baton Rouge. An “Equal Rights” office was also created to ensure that there are no episodes of discrimination during the relief efforts.
Among those Federal agencies, there is also an area setup for non-profit organizations such as America’s Second Harvest, Islamic Relief, Red Cross, Salvation Army, and United Sikhs. We were embedded with a relief unit from United Sikhs and saw first hand all the good work these organizations were doing on the ground.
United Sikhs: Project Ghanaia
|United Sikhs Operations Center and Temporary Gurudwara
United Sikhs is currently responsible for helping four shelter homes. When they first arrived there were over 1,300 evacuees residing in just these four homes. Many homes are churches that opened their doors, while others are community centers and closed store fronts.
Many shelters are just spaces and rooms where bed after bed is lined up along with whatever belongings the victims had managed to bring with them. Some, mainly churches, are clean, with volunteers looking after children and running errands. Others are dirty, in bad locations, with residents that are just getting by.
At the shelter homes that United Sikhs is involved in, they provide for the basic needs of the evacuees. They provide hot meals such as spaghetti, macaroni, and rice and beans, and other amenities like Walmart gift cards. At one shelter home, the Dream Center, almost every one, volunteer and victim alike, stopped us and said “thank you, thank you for coming.”
The Dream Center, like most relief areas, is inundated with food, water and clothes. They have warehouses filled with these basic necessities. According to Kuldip Singh, the United Sikhs Director in charge, they have too much food and not enough money to provide for changing needs.
The United Sikhs operations center in Baton Rouge is at the Gurdwara President’s house. Sumir Kaur has been housing as many volunteers and victims as she can, with food made daily. The house is also the temporary premises of the Gurdwara, where the saroop of Guru Granth Sahib that was retrieved from the New Orleans Gurdwara last week is currently residing.
During the first rescue operation, Nirmal Singh, the Granthi, told us that they couldn’t get into the Sukhasan room to retrieve the other four birs, one large, older bir and three smaller, larivaar saroops.
Ground Zero: New Orleans
|Inside the Subway Restaurant
Panthic Weekly went with a United Sikhs team into New Orleans to see the devastation for ourselves—the stench upon entering the metropolitan area was overwhelming at times, terms such as “raw sewage” and “toxic waste” best describe it.
Our team visited one of several Subway restaurants operated by a Punjabi family in Jefferson Parish. The windows were broken, furniture was overturned and appliances were smashed. The cash registers were torn apart, but all of the food—bread, water, racks of potato chips and cookies—were still intact and in place. All of the salad had rotted and the walls were covered with a greenish mud—the stench inside was like a wall that just knocks one back.
“We wouldn’t care if they took all the food. Take the food!” said the owners adding that most of the small business owners in the area won’t be able to take the financial difficulty caused by the looters.
Gurdwara Sahib and Four Saroops
Panthic Weekly had the honor of going to the Gurdwara Sahib with United Sikhs and helping to retrieve the saroops of Guru Sahib that were left there. Once the decision was made to go, the team approached an Army National Guard checkpoint where they were promptly waived through without any trouble—in fact permission was granted the whole way to the Gurdwara.
“We were able to get to the Gurdwara Sahib today after being stopped by three different Army National Guards companies at different check points in New Orleans. This was an important task for me to assist Sangat and bring back Guru Sahib ji,” said Kuldip Singh.
The city was deserted, the downtown areas resembling apocalyptic scenes. Boats were overturned, dead fish as large as three feet long were strewn across people’s lawns; one large building had the words “Send boats” painted on it. Helicopters flew over head and military patrols went by every few minutes.
The Gurdwara Sahib is in a bad state. The Nishan Sahib was torn to shreds by the wind, the front yard was muddy, and bibles from the church next door were strewn all over the property. Inside the Gurdwara, one could see the line on the wall where the water had stood for nearly two weeks. The carpet on the ground could barely be found because the ground was covered in two inches of mud that looked and smelled like raw sewage.
|Takht with Basket of Fresh Rose Petals
Upon entering, the Takht (throne) stood out against all the wreckage, untouched. Fresh rose petals, which must have been placed there earlier, were still in place. It was as if some sevadar had just come recently and put them there.
Nirmal Singh, the Granthi, told us in an exclusive interview that he had left on Saturday, August 27th to go to Sumir Kaur’s house in Baton Rouge to get some legal papers signed. Intending to go back that afternoon, he said he did not realize the severity of the storm. That day, a state of emergency was declared in Louisiana as Katrina loomed and all roads led out of the city. To try to go back, he said, would have been dangerous.
He called the Secretary of the Gurdwara who lived nearby and asked him to do sukhasan and keep the saroops safe. Nirmal Singh recalled that the secretary had his own family as well as his own saroops at his house to look after.
“Whatever happened, it was my responsibility…next time we will have a plan…I should have stayed at the Gurdwara.” Panthic Weekly sources recall the granthi privately crying, saying, “Guru Sahib will never forgive me for this.”
Speaking about the first rescue of the bir in the Darbar Sahib, he said the rescuers went in with a boat and found Guru Sahib floating on the Takht. According to Nirmal Singh, the rescuers had a hard time getting around and couldn’t even enter the Sukhasan room.
|Guru Sahib's Saroop after being placed on the mattress
When our team arrived, the water had receded from surrounding areas and the Sukhasan room was easily accessible directly to the right and behind where the Takht was. As Panthic Weekly entered, we saw the United Sikhs team respectfully picking up the birs and placing them on a mattress. Rising flood waters had pushed the mattress and the birs down on the floor, where they remained until the water receded.
Sevadars sorrowfully noticed that the saroops were covered in toxic muck. They were soaked through and to even try to do parkash of the saroop would have been disrespectful as the angs (pages) were stuck together. Once they were taken to the van, the team realized the birs had a strong odor of raw sewage.
After a long drive back, Guru Sahib's saroops were taken to the temporary Gurudwara in Baton Rouge where all sevadars felt it was best to do sanskar (cremation) as soon as possible. With the help of United Sikhs volunteers, Panthic Weekly ensured maryada was kept and the utmost respect was given although there seemed to be a sense of urgency with other sevadars. The Gurdwara secretary lit the pire for the agni pett (cremation) and the local sangat gathered around for a short time reciting bani, shedding tears, painfully helping in the seva, echoing their communal sense of loss.
One sevadar said, “Like we clean our relative’s body before cremation, it felt as though we were cleaning Guru Sahib’s body. It felt like a real funeral with everyone emotional and involved in the seva.”
“Watching the sanskar seva being done was a very special moment for me. Seeing the sevadars work tirelessly throughout the night is truly Guru’s grace.” said Zorawar Singh, a volunteer from Bakersfield, CA.
|Granthi Nirmal Singh after helping retrieve Guru Sahib's Saroops
A few sevadars stayed up until 3 AM until the last embers went cold. The following morning, the ashes were respectfully scattered in the Mississippi River.
Many Sikhs worldwide have asked how this could have happened and why it happened—Nirmal Singh responded saying, “We didn’t have a plan…didn’t know it would be that bad.”
“If we rebuild, it will be somewhere farther from shore, where it’s dry and safe.”
Amritsar Times, of California, reports that the Granthi abandoned Guru Sahib, scared for his own life. The report also said, along with some other incorrect facts, that United Sikhs is encouraging factions to start another Gurdwara.
“United Sikhs has not suggested to start a new Gurdwara, that is the local Sangat’s concern,” said Kuldip Singh.