Tonight Charlie and I will sleep in my family’s home in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. It hit me this morning what a blessing that is, considering nine years ago today, Hurricane Katrina tore through our state, our town, our neighborhood.
It was the first weekend of my senior year at Lee University. We were so busy with hall chaplain training that I didn’t even know a hurricane was in the gulf. My dad called Saturday to say he was going surfing in Gulf Shores because a storm named Katrina was churning up the biggest waves we’d had in years. He told us later that he left the water when he saw a guy wipe out and get washed over the road.
My 82-year-old grandmother had just had knee replacement surgery in Biloxi. She was still in the hospital a few blocks from the beach when evacuation orders were issued.
We didn’t have cable in our dorm, so I went to a friend’s house to watch the live coverage as the storm came ashore. I drifted in and out of sleep all night on her couch, making it all seem like a bad dream. When I really woke up the next morning, I screamed when I saw a live shot of places I knew like the back of my hand. Only now I didn’t see them — I just knew that empty space was were they used to be.
The cell towers were jammed and I couldn’t call anyone with a 228 area code. I knew my parents were in north Mississippi, but I couldn’t reach them. My brother was just as helpless in Costa Rica. I finally got a hold of my dad’s mom on Wednesday after the storm. Then I wrote this scary entry in my journal:
Will and I just found out that we can’t be sure where my parents are. They last talked to my grandmother after their car got stuck trying to get around a downed tree. They abandoned it and were walking the highway trying to hitch a ride to shelter. We thought we knew for sure where they were…we don’t.
The storm had caught up to them by then and they were walking in it. We heard from them the next day.
Neighbors who rode out the storm broke into our house (not difficult with the windows gone) and tore out all our carpet before more mold could set in. One of them sent me a message online to let me know the extent of the damage.
I somehow learned my uncle Timmy was picking up my dad with a gun, $5,000 and barrells of clean water to make the drive back to the Coast. They figured they could get through any road block with the cash and water, and the gun was there because they knew they were walking into a desperate situation.
My mom joined my dad sometime that week. I learned that they went to our local hospital to ask to buy their leftover dinner rolls. I cried like a baby hearing that.
I flew into Mobile two weeks after the storm and my Mom drove me home. When we reached Pascagoula, I remember the air started to reek. All the salt and mud was decaying everything it touched.
The first thing I saw was a pile of our belongings on the corner of the street before we pulled into the driveway. My dad had spent all morning clearing everything out and sweeping the foundation so the house would look as clean and orderly as possible for me. That sums up my father — doing anything he can to make any experience easier for his family.
We lived the next few months in an alternate world. I was in a fog all semester at school and took the spring semester off to be at home. Although not really home, since we lived in a one bedroom apartment in a retirement community until February and I slept on an air mattress on the floor in the living room next to our dog.
My parents and I navigated the devastated streets of Gulfport on Christmas morning, looking for people in FEMA trailers who might like a hot Christmas dinner. One woman gave us her jade plant. She explained it was a symbol of friendship, and that all of us who were living in Katrina’s aftermath were surely friends. We kept that jade plant, a symbol of friendship, for almost 6 years.
When my dad started traveling for work again, it was nice to be home with my mom and slowly switch from “recovery” mode to “redecorating” mode as we picked out new paint colors and redesigned our home. My parents were rocks, caring for my grandmother in her surgery recovery as well as caring for us.
I don’t know when conversations finally stopped including at least some discussion of the storm, but it took a long time. For the next year, everything revolved around some aspect of Katrina.
When I walk through our front door now, it always smells like a new home. I feel so grateful that we still gather in a place where we have so many memories. I feel blessed that I walked through that same door as a fourth grader on my way to school and now I walk through it with my husband.
Our family didn’t suffer Katrina like some. We were blessed that our home flooded but still stood. The word I remember hearing over and over in my heart during that time is “faithful.”
God is so faithful. He walked our family down a very hard road. A road that we are blessed continues to arrive at a front door on Portree Place again and again, nine years later.
Sidenote: As I finished writing these memories, I thought of one more that made me laugh. My parent’s good friend, John Pittman from the Delta, called my dad a few days after the storm. His first words, in his classic Delta drawl, were “Mark, it’s John. Kathryn and I thought we’d come down for a visit ,” as if they were planning a relaxing vacation to the Coast to stay with their friends. It cracked my dad up at a time when there wasn’t much to laugh about. John was at our house that same week, sweating in the heat and sorting through what to save and what to toss.