SCI Chaplains Help Mariners Who Rode Out Hurricane Ida

It’s been close to two months since Hurricane Ida made landfall as a strong Category 4 storm at Port Fourchon, La., slowly moved inland over towns like Pointe-Aux-Chenes, Bourg, Raceland and Lockport and crossed the Mississippi River just above Fortyeight Mile Point.

In the days since, grounded barges and vessels have been pulled free. Damage to barges, towboats, ships and facilities has been assessed. In many cases, repairs are underway.

But a just-as-important aspect of Hurricane Ida recovery involves the many brave mariners who were on duty along the coast and on the Mississippi River during the storm. These mariners endured eight hours or more of major hurricane-force winds and waves as they rode out the storm on towboats and, in some cases, nearby barges.

“No one grasps this experience except those who survived it together,” said Tom Rhoades, Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) chaplain for the Lower Mississippi River, Gulf Coast and Houston Ship Channel. “Unforgettable, the intensity and traumatic impact of Hurricane Ida has implanted itself in the lives of those who were on vessels during the storm.”

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As part of SCI’s “Ministry on the River” team, Rhoades, along with chaplain associates in the region, deployed in the weeks after Ida to provide critical incident stress management (CISM) intervention and pastoral care to mariners who went through Hurricane Ida. Rhoades said, for mariners who rode out the hurricane on their vessels, it’s important for them to share and process their stories.

“As Ida slowly churned its way inland, entire fleets were scattered, and towboats moved upriver with the surge while their wheels turned downriver for control,” Rhoades said. “As barges hit boats, some vessels had to be left behind. Mariners timed jumps onto rising and falling barges. A few entered void tanks and then opened the hatches for air.

“Time stood still during the height of the storm, with sustained winds in some locations exceeding 150 mph.,” he added. “Crews along the Gulf and on the river waited for the next wave or next barge collision to cause a capsize, knowing that the whitecaps were not survivable. Mariners know that only half of those who fall into the Lower Mississippi River on calm, sunny days survive.”

And they weren’t just hanging on, waiting for the wind to subside. In many cases, captains stayed at the sticks, while other crew members did their best to keep vessels secured to blocks of barges.

As conditions deteriorated, communications broke down, leaving shoreside staff, friends and family anxiously awaiting word from mariners after the storm passed.

“For mariners, families and friends, the stress is unspeakable, and the relief of hearing the good news of survival ushers forth torrents of tears,” Rhoades said. “Hardened mariners hug one another and weep. After surviving Ida, some mariners found themselves home squeezing their wives, girlfriends, mothers, dads and children, while uttering, ‘I can’t believe I made it.’”

Rhoades said, as he and other SCI chaplains have traveled to vessels and shoreside facilities to meet with mariners who rode out Hurricane Ida on their vessels, many have reported experiencing sleeplessness, nightmares, anxiety and fear, anger and a sense of isolation from crew members and family who didn’t experience Ida onboard a towboat like they did.

Those are all natural signs of grief and trauma, Rhoades said, but it’s crucial that mariners not get stuck there. For mariners who went through Hurricane Ida aboard their vessels, a lasting danger lies in pent-up trauma.

“Stuffing trauma into the trunks of our lives and slamming the door shut in the name of ‘macho’ does not really work,” he said. “The pain seeps into our responses and behaviors, and we cover it up with our attempts to escape through self-medication and targeting others to receive our pain. Unresolved trauma makes us overeat, overdrink, abuse our bodies and abuse our shipmates and families.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way, Rhoades said. Sharing what happened and processing the emotions that follow traumatic experiences is a way to begin healing, and that’s what chaplains like Rhoades help facilitate. Since Hurricane Ida, SCI’s chaplains have made more than 200 visits and calls to offer counseling and crisis debriefing sessions to mariners. Rhoades said the goal is to not just move beyond traumatic experiences, but to grow stronger because of them.

“Most of us will survive Ida’s long recovery just like we are surviving this pandemic,” Rhoades said. “But for myself, I want to do more than survive. I want to thrive and allow the suffering in my life to make me stronger and more resilient and even healthier in my relationships and emotions.”

Besides vessel and facility visits, SCI chaplains are available around the clock. Mariners may call the SCI chaplain crisis number, 800-708-1998, or email chaplains at wellness@seamenschurch.org.

SCI has a network of more than 40 chaplains and chaplain associates that can deploy along the inland waterways.

It’s all about a “ministry of presence,” Rhoades said, where chaplains, through ongoing contact, help mariners grow more healthy in mind and body.

“In the aftermath of the devastation of Hurricane Ida on both mariners and the maritime industry, where SCI chaplains received over 200 requests for CISM response, vessel visits or phone and video calls, our need to expand SCI’s Ministry on the River program became glaringly obvious,” SCI President and Executive Director Mark Nestlehutt said. “We need to expand to respond to an obvious need in the industry—not only for emergency and critical incident response, but also to increase our ability to provide for whole mariner wellness.”

Rhoades encouraged anyone struggling with their Ida experiences to reach out to a chaplain.

“If you find yourself reliving the experience, being frustrated easily, being depressed or having any other response to traumatic events like Hurricane Ida, we will help you get the support you need through mental health professionals,” he said. “Let’s not let Ida define the rest of our lives but become a blessing as we help others through their rough times. One of the best ways to get through our pain is to open up and let others into our lives. Supporting each other is the way we thrive following an event that could have taken our lives.”

Frank McCormack, who served as Gulf Coast Correspondent for The Waterways Journal from 2015 to 2021, was recently named senior manager-communications for The Seamen’s Church Institute.