Five years ago today, I lost almost everything I owned in a perfect storm named Katrina. While we drove farther away from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, flood waters moved into our home and carried our refrigerator into the living room. Hundreds of books became a pile of unreadable mush. We stood in stunned silence in a Florida motel room packed with our girls, four dogs, a hairless rat, two gerbils and boxes of what we thought was important enough to take with us, watching the destruction on the television. And when we returned, we slipped into an instant shock as we saw cars smashed up against buildings, slab after slab lined along the beaches and the most intimate belongings strewn along tree branches or melded into fences. At one point, the pile of debris in the front of our yard was taller than the roof of our house. We wondered if we would ever feel better. Coming together on streets that looked like a battlefield, we asked our friends and acquaintances if they knew who survived and who didn’t. Helicopters overhead reinforced the feeling that we were in a third-world country. I questioned whether we should live in a place where something like this is possible. Our children grieved over the loss of memorabilia that spanned their short lifetimes. We cried over the things we didn’t consider important enough to stuff into the cars. We longed for walls, a television, a home cooked meal in a ‘normal kitchen,’ a FEMA trailer and a bed to sleep in. And we were terrified that we wouldn’t have the means to rebuild and carry on.
We couldn’t think ahead much past the next week or maybe, if we stretched it, the next month. Living in the present wasn’t something we struggled to perfect – it became default mode as we didn’t want to relive the trauma of the recent past and we couldn’t quite grasp the concept of a normal future.
Let me tell you about the volunteers. I still can’t fathom how people put their lives, careers and school years on hold to come and muck out house after house. People came to us from all across the nation and cried with us as we took stock of what we lost. We felt their love and they felt our losses as they were confronted day after day with the aftermath of the trauma. You would think they would want to run away and stay in their own comfortable homes with their healthy, happy families. But they stayed, or returned again and again. Americorps volunteers, students from Queens University and many other colleges, church members from every denomination – they all rushed in to help us when we couldn’t help ourselves.
Now, I sit in my living room, typing on a laptop and watching the Emmys in High Definition. The air conditioner hums softly in the background and I have electricity in every room of my house at the same time without having to prioritize appliances into a small number of working outlets. I just returned home from a celebration in the little town of Bay St. Louis where countless friends and community leaders came together to remember those who lost their lives and to take stock of how far we’ve come. Businesses still struggle to stay open another week. The oil spill has us all feeling more than a little beleaguered. And we might always hold our breath through most of July through September, hoping this doesn’t happen again.
Let me tell you about what I gained from Katrina. I know how to hang and finish drywall now which I suppose sets me apart from many of my peers. My neighbors and I now know each other by name and we still do little things for each other to make life easier. Almost all of my possessions are new and my house is more open and comfortable, yet I’m very detached from all things material and mundane. I found coaching which I believe is my divine, soul purpose. Gratitude has become a daily practice and my spiritual life is deeper and richer than ever before. Words like content, delighted and peaceful are used to describe how I feel on a daily basis. And I have this inner silent knowing of the soul that is unshakeable.
I hope my family and I never have to go through this again. But I know we can survive the unimaginable. As strange as this sounds, I’m grateful for Hurricane Katrina. From much destruction came an incredible rebirth. Five years later, I can tell you – I am forever changed.