Katrina brings new dimension to Sister Helen Prejean's mission to

The plight of poor blacks who could not escape Hurricane Katrina offers a twist on the popular "Left Behind" series about the people who remain on Earth after the Rapture.

It also gives a new dimension to Sister Helen Prejean's mission to eliminate the death penalty.

Herself one of hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the disaster, she is going forward with her fall speaking schedule - cobbled back together after the original records in New Orleans were destroyed by flooding - with fresh ways to illustrate her points.

She plans to draw comparisons, for example, between evacuation plans that made no provision for people who did not have cars and a criminal justice system that hands down the ultimate punishment overwhelmingly to low-income minorities.

"We must stop relying on violence and incarceration and attend to the social fabric," Prejean said. "If people have decent housing, jobs and schools, the family stays together and they're not going to turn to crime."

The 66-year-old Louisiana native may have been talking on a borrowed cell phone - calls to her own still wouldn't go through as she traveled between speaking engagements in Florida last week - but her message came through loud and clear.

The same was true in 1993 when Prejean published "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States," which became an international bestseller and the basis for an Academy Award-winning film starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon.

The Catholic nun plans to bring her message to Decatur on Tuesday.

"I know other people are handling the hurricane victims, and I need to stay on mission," she said. "The American people are not any more vengeful than other people, but they just don't know what's going on with the death penalty and they don't reflect on it very deeply.

"It's my job to take them there."

Prejean did that in "Dead Man Walking" by writing about her role as spiritual advisor to two convicted murderers who died in the electric chair. She said the execution of the first, Elmo Patrick Sonnier, on April 5, 1984, changed the course of her life.

"I walked out of that chamber in the middle of the night, and I threw up," she recalls. "I had never before watched someone killed in front of my eyes."

Her new book, "The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions," traces her journey counseling two death row inmates until they died by lethal injection - two men she believes were innocent.

Her stop in Decatur is sponsored by Macon County Citizens Opposing Capital Punishment and the Millikin University chapter of Amnesty International.

When not traveling, Prejean has been staying with her sister in Baton Rouge since evacuating New Orleans two days before Katrina struck Aug. 29.

When not helping people find shelter and schools, she has been making final revisions for the paperback version of "Innocents," due out in January.

"This catastrophe has felt biblical, like the way it feels before an execution when you focus only on the moment at hand," she said.

It also has profound lessons to teach, Prejean said, in light of statistics showing that states without the death penalty have lower crime rates.

"We were told the levees would protect us from flooding, but they broke," she said. "In the same way we believe the death penalty will protect us from crime, but it's all an illusion."