SLIDELL, La. — On the morning a 20-foot storm surge from Hurricane Katrina washed away my hometown of Slidell, I was bunkered down in a tiny hotel room in Natchez, Miss., 120 miles away with my three children, my parents and a terrified Dachshund named Elvis.
I spent most of the night in the hotel lobby, watching CNN and the Weather Channel with other harried refugees as Hurricane Katrina headed across the Gulf for Slidell. Outside the hotel, the wind whipped and lighting flashed as we listened to what sounded like a death sentence for our suburban brick ranch home. I kept thinking about all the tall pines that surrounded our house, the kids’ trampoline in the backyard and the lawn furniture. Had I secured everything? Did I do everything I could?
It became imperative to return home immediately following the storm. In the midst of winds, rains and roads made impassable by giant oaks and pines upturned by Katrina, we set out behind a slow-moving National Guard Hummer cutting its way through the path of destruction. It took a day to drive a little over 90 miles. The familiar back highway we had driven a hundred times before was unrecognizable. The feeder bands of rain and winds were still whipping through, weaker and growing more impotent as the day went on.
Now, five years later, there are two southern Louisianas and two cities of Slidell — the one before the storm and the one after. Both are distinct and individual. The landscape, landmarks, architecture and population are all different in 2010.
I, too, have changed in many ways. My career, belief system, politics, faith and desires are altered. You cannot be baptized in the dirty waters of Hurricane Katrina and come out unchanged. In many tangible ways, much more was lost than gained. Yet if there is one thing I took from my experiences, it is the desire to overcome circumstances and survive the odds.
I was inspired by the goodness and hope I saw in people from all over the country who donated their time and resources to help a region of people who were lost. I saw it in my neighbors, volunteers, Red Cross workers and church groups from all over the nation. They could have stayed in the comfort of their air-conditioned homes and offices; instead they came to the heat and destruction and helped us pick up the pieces. One load of black mud, one stack of bricks, one truck of debris at a time. You cannot share that experience and not be transformed.
It was a long time before things would seem easy again, that we would trust we could go into a grocery store and find what we needed. Or that we wouldn’t have to wait in mile-long lines for gas. We rejoiced as each utility was restored — electricity, water and telephone and gifts such as cable television and Internet. For many of us, we had lived in a decimated bubble with no access to the outside world.
During the months following the storm, I met people from all over the United States who came to my little part of the world to help. I learned angels come in unexpected shapes and sizes. They were seen flying over our city in the shape of Black Hawk helicopters, bringing us safety and protection. They came disguised as our neighbors in pirogues, Red Cross volunteers from Modesto, Calif., and police officers from Illinois. School children from Florida sent truck loads of backpacks filled with school supplies for our students. Angels, all of them.
One story stands out in particular: With downed trees lining our streets, it was imperative the roads be cleared. More important was the removal of a 90-foot pine tree that was leaning precariously over the roof of my home. The Saturday after the storm, my father and his best friend were in my yard, preparing to remove the tree by themselves before it came crashing through my roof.
Volunteers from a Mississippi church were driving around the neighborhood, looking to lend a hand. They helped my father get the tree down, cut it into firewood and stack it. They cleared our road and continued helping my neighbors until dark. My father tried to offer them money for their time, gas and ministry, but they refused. They just told us to go help someone else; that was all the payment they needed. Those people, whose lives will probably never cross mine again, made the most profound impact upon my life. They gave of themselves wholly and selflessly, knowing we had nothing to give in return.
Life goes on. Hurricane season comes and goes and we hold our breath and whisper silent prayers to God that we never have to face another Katrina. We are not victims anymore. We are survivors. We have survived the blue roofs, the FEMA trailers, the loss and the pain. We are not the same. We are scarred, but stronger.