BILOXI, Miss. — Hurricane Katrina made me a better person. Its 20-foot storm surge took away everything I owned and nearly wrecked my wedding. But it gave me a better understanding of what’s most important in life. It has been a long road since finding myself homeless the day after the storm.
I was renting a beachfront apartment in Gulfport, Miss., when Hurricane Katrina destroyed half the complex and killed two tenants who refused to leave despite mandatory evacuation orders. I had left the area with my wife’s family and came back the day after the storm to find that the only thing left of my building was the chimney. It stood as the lone beacon amid a sea of brick and lumber.
I recovered only a few personal items from the debris. The most important one was my master’s degree — an MBA from William Carey University in Gulfport. It was found face-down and still inside the frame. It’s now hanging on the wall in my home office. The paper is dirty and torn, and it looks like an antique diploma until you see the date on it is 2004.
My wedding was set for Oct. 22, 2005. Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29, and destroyed much of our wedding plans:
* The storm obliterated the Water’s Edge Apartments where we intended to live after getting married.
* It destroyed the Mississippi City Methodist Church in Gulfport where we planned to hold the ceremony.
* Our rehearsal dinner was going to be at the Ruby Tuesday on the beach in Gulfport. Katrina flattened it, too.
* The hurricane put a tree through the roof of the Bayou Bluff Tennis Club in Gulfport where our reception was to be held.
We decided to stick with the Oct. 22 date no matter what. We had only seven weeks to find a new place to live, locate another church, reserve space for another rehearsal dinner and set up a new reception. For the first two of those seven weeks, we had no electricity, no clean running water, no phone service and no Internet. It was like living in a third-world country.
But despite so many obstacles, we managed to put everything in order and keep the wedding date. I moved us into a new apartment in neighboring Biloxi on the morning of our wedding day. We didn’t get the keys until the night before and the carpet inside was still wet from being cleaned. We were able to book another church, find a new restaurant for the rehearsal dinner and even keep the same reception location thanks to a few blue tarps placed on the roof. I still laugh about how quickly it all came together at the last minute. (We even had to get the tuxedo rental place to express-deliver a vest because they sent mine in the wrong color.)
Mississippi City Methodist has since rebuilt and is holding services again. The Bayou Bluff Tennis Club now looks like nothing ever happened there, minus a few trees from before. We’ve since been to another wedding reception there and it looks perfect inside and out. Unfortunately, Ruby Tuesday never came back; a brick slab still remains where the building once stood, overlooking the same Gulf of Mexico that washed it away.
Nearly 200 people attended our wedding and reception despite it taking place inside a federal disaster area. We had guests who had also lost their homes to Katrina and were living in the spare bedrooms of their own friends and family because no hotel rooms were available anywhere along the coast. A friend later commented that the food, music and open bar at our reception was a very welcome break from the clean-up and mess that everyone had endured since Katrina. For many folks, it was the first fun thing they had done since before Aug. 29. For me, it was oddly comforting to hear so many different stories from other people who were affected in different ways by the storm.
The most positive thing I gained from Katrina was that I am no longer concerned with material things, at least not like I used to be. I’m happy my friends and family safely weathered the storm, even if some of their homes hadn’t stood up so well. The people around you and the relationships that you build are what really count in life. Everything else is just a flimsy combination of wood and bricks, and you’d be surprised how easily it could all float away one morning.
Losing everything I owned became a blessing because I now understand the illusion of permanence. It was like dealing with a tragic sudden death of a friend or loved one that forces you to re-evaluate everything.
I continue to live on Mississippi’s coast mainly because of the family connection. My wife and I have since bought our first home and moved farther north where we are no longer in any kind of flood zone. As much as I love boating and fishing, I don’t think I could never live next to water again.