Friday, December 07, 2007

Water Line

Yesterday morning my colleagues and I painted the exterior of a house belonging to a woman whose home was flooded in August 2005 during hurricane Katrina.

My fellow co-workers also framed walls for a new house and painted murals in a daycare center that will finally re-open next week.

Because so much work remains to be done along the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans, we held our staff retreat here and decided to donate our time as part of the agenda.

On the first night local residents came to our group dinner and told us their stories.

I invited Megan from Velveteen Mind and she read her Victor Vito blog post.

My colleagues were moved by the profound way that her story blended the ordinary details of life with the devastation of the storm.

She was charming, funny, eloquent and poignant.

The other community guest was a man named Grady, the uncle of one of my colleagues.

The first thing Grady told us was that he usually avoids talking about his experience during hurricane Katrina.

Before the hurricane Grady lived with his wife and three children in a nice house near the beach in coastal, Mississippi.

He was the CEO of a successful company that he founded.

He drove a nice car.

Grady’s elderly father, reliant upon an oxygen tank to breathe, lived in the house next door.

During the summer of 2005, Grady’s family evacuated their home five times for hurricanes and, on one of those occasions, it didn’t even rain.

On the morning of August 29th Grady didn't think it looked like Katrina would hit the Gulf Coast.

He and his family decided not to evacuate and stayed at home.

At noon that day, the situation looked more dire so they decided to drive two miles inland to Grady’s office.

They brought their boat and left it set so that if the water rose the boat would rise with it.

The water rose.

Grady told us how fast the water came into his office building and kept coming.

He had one life jacket.

His six, eight and ten year old children worried.

When the water started to become dangerously high, Grady put his six year old in the life jacket and tied a rope around him.

Grady, his wife, his father and the other two children held on to the rope and prayed.

The family decided that if the water rose too high they would break a window up near the ceiling, escape and swim around the building to the boat.

I’m not sure where Grady’s father’s oxygen tank fit into the plan. Perhaps it didn’t.

Meanwhile, the water kept rising.

The children began to cry.

The eye of the storm passed over the building.

The water kept rising and rising… and finally…finally…it stopped.

When the water receded they had to walk the two miles back to their neighborhood and make their way over six blocks of debris eight feet high to find the spot where their house had been.

It took four days for Grady to find what remained of his house four blocks away.

With all communication cut off, Grady’s family had no way to understand the magnitude of the storm's impact. In other parts of the country their extended family had no way to know if they were alive.

As Grady talked, I couldn’t help thinking about how frightened he must have been during the storm. I thought about how responsible he must have felt – responsible for protecting his family, for making the choice to stay, for needing to save their lives.

I thought about the nightmares that jerk me awake in a cold sweat – the ones where something terrible has happened to The Mayor and The Rooster. The ones where I can't save them.

I thought about Grady living through this literal nightmare.

It took my breath away.

After his talk, Grady told me that the thing about his experience that hurt him the most was that his children were robbed of the secure knowledge that he was Superman. They saw his raw fear and it stripped them of their innocence. More than anything else, this is what he wishes he could erase.

The physical destruction caused by the storm is no longer represented by piles of debris or the twisted remains of buildings but rather by endless stretches of emptiness marked only by driveways and stairs leading to the ghosts of vanished front doors.

I wondered about the destruction that I couldn’t see.

Grady’s family evacuated to his wife’s family farm in Georgia and they still live there.

Though Grady commutes back and forth between the farm and the gulf to work, his family will not return.

They don’t even want to visit. They are not coming back here.

What is it like to live with the memory of their experience?

Megan told me a story about a woman who worked as a nurse in a mental health facility before the storm.

Because the patients couldn’t be evacuated, staff had to stay and work or lose their jobs.

The woman stayed and because she stayed, so did her husband and son.

After the storm, when she was able to finally make it back to her house, she found her husband and son had drowned in the family living room.

She was found cradling the body of her son on her front porch.

She had been sitting there holding him for days because there was no one to come and collect the dead.

“So is everything rebuilt now? Is everything back to normal?”

Megan told me how much she hates this question.

It’s not rebuilt. It’s not back to normal.

What was lost will never be returned.

Grady told us about the second storm surge, the wave of volunteers who came from all over the country and arrived well before the government with water, ice and bread.

The volunteers brought simple things like toothpaste and soap. They brought baby formula and diapers.

“They restored my faith in humanity,” he said.

I wish I had been one of those volunteers but on the day of hurricane Katrina I watched CNN, labored and gave birth to The Rooster.

This is the first time I have had the opportunity to come to the Gulf to volunteer.

Yesterday I painted the house of an elderly woman who has lived in a nursing home for nearly two and a half years.

In February her house, entirely renovated by volunteers, will be finished and she will finally be able to come home.

Both Megan and Grady talked about their faith that the Gulf Coast would be reborn into something greater than it was before.

Despite their experiences, both of them believe that the utter devastation was, itself, a catalyst for the Gulf Coast’s renewal.

They described people and communities coming together to collaborate in ways that would never have been possible before the storm.

Their enthusiasm and hope were contagious.

I found myself swept up in it, and felt part of something larger than myself.

In so many ways, I am so grateful.


motherbumper said...

I'm speechless. I can't even articulate how it makes me feel, how in a country like the US that this can unfold like it did. This is a hard post to read, but these stories need to be told so we can learn.

Fairly Odd Mother said...

Wow. Just wow.

Katrina said...

It completely breaks my heart to think of that woman holding her son for days...I cannot even imagine it.

-The Shiny Happy Mama- said...

So heartbreaking. I cannot even imagine.

mommiebear2 said...

Wow, I got goosebumps while reading this ~ I think it is wonderful that you are able to help.

Pgoodness said...

Wow. Thank you so much for sharing these stories. I've always felt so horrible about the devastation from Katrina; the pathetic way things were handled and the lack of immediate support angered me from afar. I appreciate hearing that even in the depths of despair and pain, that there was and is hope for the people from/in those communities.

I love that you used a staff retreat to help people. That is awesome.

kristen said...

You must work for an amazing company. What a wonderful gift you and your co-workers gave this community. I cried when I read this. The water rising, the kids, the fear and the woman holding her dead son for days. There are no words for this kind of suffering.

Victoria said...

Oh, the image of that mother holding her son...

This was powerful - goosebumps and tears here too.

Bon said...

many pieces of this broke my heart. and i need the continued reminders, so i don't begin to think along the lines of "is everything back to normal?"
thank you. what you're doing there is good. what you're sharing here may be equally important.

Circus Kelli said...

Wow...just WOW.
Goosebumps on my arms
Imagining the pain of that Mother...

Thank you for sharing this with us.

BlondeMomBlog (Jamie) said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. What a powerful story...I cannot even imagine what the residents of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans still are left to cope with. This is a great reminder that we cannot ever forget to help our neighbors, even when the media does. Even when the flood waters have receded. There is still so much to do.

furiousBall said...

Good on you amiga - my cousin and her family lost their home in Bay St. Louis, MS and another friend of my family lost his home on Dauphin Island in Katrina. There is still work to do down there, I'm grateful you are doing something. And it's always nice when the reward is in the work itself.

Life As I Know It said...

"Grady told me that the thing about his experience that hurt him the most was that his children were robbed of the secure knowledge that he was Superman. They saw his raw fear and it stripped them of their innocence. More than anything else, this is what he wishes he could erase."

This is so true. To rob our kids of their security and perception of mom and dad being fearless and always able to protect....heartbreaking to say the least.
Powerful post.
Thanks for that. Thanks for the reminder that things are not "back to normal" or "rebuilt". It's easy to forget.

Patience said...

Katrina, and on her tails, Rita, left so many with stories of horror, of heroism, of faith. It is difficult to imagine having to live through something like this, especially perhaps the uncertainty of what there is left back at home.

Shannon said...

Spirits, homes, memories...all broken.

I hope everyone affected can piece back new memories, stronger spirits, and comfortable homes.

PunditMom said...

I still can't believe we live in a country where we have so much and our government has given so little to help these people. Thank you for this story , as well as Megan's.

we_be_toys said...

What a wonderful company to work for, that they would include helping out in the rebuilding of that area.
Your stories about Grady and the mother who found her son drowned broke my heart - its true - the devastation doesn't just go away.
Thanks so much for bringing it to people's attention again.

Erin said...

This was beautifully written and something, I think, we all needed to hear. Thank you for sharing.

ALM said...

Oh My Goodness. I am very ashamed to say I had no idea. I mean, I knew about the devastation, and heard the stories afterwards... but now all you hear about are the people still in FEMA trailers, and how the gov't isn't doing anything for them. But the stories. The individual stories... That really brought it home. I'm just in shock, really.

Thank you.

New Orleans News Ladder said...

Thank you so much for that post. I placed it onto the Ladder.
I was there, and so very rarely enjoy post-flood posts by people who were not. Indeed most of the time I would like to hunt them down for their rude ignorance of the cause and scale of this man-made disaster.
Your's is not one of those. Your post I can and do send around to other nolafugees to say, "See?".
Thanks again and again,
editor / NO News Ladder

Katie said...

Thank you. I lived, and still live, in New Orleans. There is no "back to normal" and never will be. But I'm shooting for back to good.

I had to leave the computer a couple of times to finish reading this. One of the things I am grateful for is not having children (at the time) to guide through the experience. It's been hell enough as it is, but that would take it to a whole new level.

Jenn said...

I think I've mentioned before of how I too had recently given birth and was spending time in the hospital when Katrina hit.

Never, ever will time erase the memory of witnessing what was happening there. And while I couldn't hold my baby yet, at least I knew that she was as safe as possible in the NICU, while I sobbed for others that had no idea where their babies were.

Bless your heart for going there and helping; just simply bless you.

suchsimplepleasures said...

what a wonderful made me cry! it's amazing, the way hurricane katrina, impacted us all! i live in michigan...we had a bunch of people come live here, from louisiana. one of our sunday school teachers was from there...she stayed here, a year. her family was staying at the home of another family. at my husbands school, where he is a teacher...there were a number of students who were staying with families until they could go home. that is one natural disaster, none of us will ever forget!
ok...gotta go blow my nose!

CamiKaos said...

thank you

Rachel said...

Thank you so much for writing this, and for volunteering.

The volunteers have done so much good work down there.

SUEB0B said...

Good post. Only by learning to work together can we do what needs to get done.

Not the Queen said...

VERY poignant post. Very moving. Living so far away from the Gulf, I often forget about what happened down there, and what is going on now. Thank you so much for the heartfelt, vivid reminder.

flutter said...

Lousiana being home, and having my mom so very close to it all, this is so incredibly deep to my heart. Oh, Jess. said...

Wow. This gave me goose bumps. Thank you.

yeb said...

this post gave me goosebumps. and now i want to paint houses.

kgirl said...

The image of the woman on her porch will be forever imprinted on my brain. but so will the fact that the idiot president has done so little to help those who so desperately need it.

thank god for people like you.

Claire B. said...

I am completely covered in chills. Everyone needs to read this. We do not know how it is there. We do not know.

You and your colleagues rock. Good work.

Mimi said...

These are terrible terrible stories, OTJ. So hard to read, but so wonderful of you to share them

3carnations said...

Those stories are heartbreaking. Especially the mother. The horribly tragic irony of the choice she was forced to make - Staying so she could keep her job and provide for her family, but then losing her family. That is awful beyond words.

Sayre said...

Things like this make me cry... then I thank God for people who lose everything and still have hope... and for people like you who open your heart to those people, hear what they say, and pass it on to people like me.

canarygirl said...

Your commitment to humanity is not only awe inspiring, but humbling. You are a hero, Jessica.

canarygirl said...

and what I meant to say, was "heroine, not hero." I always manage a way to eff things up.

jeanie said...

I think it is wonderful that your company used it retreat in this way. Wow - not only practical help, but possibly also economic help in being there.

The stories were very vivid - and knowing there are/were so many more stories there makes it so heartwrenching.

jennifer said...

I don't have any words.

Thank you for reminding the rest of the world.

Sorry I missed you while you were so close.

Jennifer, Le Binky Bitch

Hol&J said...

Thank you for sharing your experience, and the stories. Like others, I needed this reminder.

Craze said...

Wow, just wow. Thank the heavens for people like you who do care and do volunteer. I'm ashamed, I wnever realized there is still so much work to do there.

Lisa Milton said...

Thank you for relaying this to us; I can't picture what it's like there now, I'm so far away.

What an amazing job you have.

We are so blessed to have you.

Mrs. Fussy Fussypants said...

Oh, Good Heavens, The mother holding her dead child.

My heart is just broken.....

I will never feel sorry for myself again!

Dang those pregnancy hormones, I may just cry forevah!

Deb said...

I rocked back and forth on my chair as I read about that mother holding her dead son. I could only say, "Oh, God. Oh, God... over and over." How devastating. How tragic. That poor father and his poor family -- the fear they felt was unimaginable.

Thanks for sharing that.

Haley-O said...

This is such a powerful post.... Thank you for sharing this -- these stories need to be told....

carrie said...

It cuts a giant hole in my heart to read this and know he and she speak the truth. I had to watch and wonder as my husband was there volunteering before FEMA and everyone else - and yet, what was I worried about, sitting in my dry and comfortable home hundreds of miles away from it?

It makes me think, and it makes me do - and I don't think that will ever go away.

Bless those people who lived it and still do, every. single. day.

Bless you for helping.

karrie said...

Thank you for this.

MommyCosm said...

Here I was today feeling bitter that my husband had to work on a Saturday and left me home alone with the kids.

That image of the mother holding her son...WOW.

Thank you for sharing your experience. Sometimes we all need a bit of a reality check.

I'm speechless...and feeling oh so small.

jen said...

hi friend, i've missed you and your writing...

Aimee Greeblemonkey said...

You really are a joy.

Jennifer said...

I just...

I can't articulate how stories like this make me feel. We all need to hear this. The reasons we aren't hearing them like we should make me so angry and so sad. The fact that these things happened at all...

Thank you for sharing.

Stimey said...

Powerful. And heartbreaking.

Mimi aka pz5wjj said...

Beautiful. Heart breaking. And beautiful.

painted maypole said...

thank you for coming. thank you for telling the stories.

around here I hear them all the time. but they never cease to amaze me.

Lawyer Mama said...

The story about the woman and her child. I don't have words.

My family is from New Orleans. Some of them have gone back and rebuilt their homes. But the city will never, ever be the same.

P.S. Your butt looks great in those jeans.

Staci Schoff said...

Oh Jessica -- I weep. Thank you for telling these stories and reminding us of our common humanity and the importance of reaching out to others.

Sarcastic Mom (aka Lotus) said...

Stories like these make my heart ache and my face wet.

But it is inspiring to see the beauty of giving and helping that springs forth.

Not trying to use this as an ad space, but I just read another post that your post here makes me think of, and it's current, and these people need help right now, too.

whymommy said...

Amazing. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

We cannot forget.

b*babbler said...

This post, it broke my heart in just so many different ways.

David said...

Thank you for this. As pastor of a church completely destroyed on the Coast of MS, and someone who rode that horror out with his family, I can relate so much to these stories.
We will need volunteers for a long time to come, 65,000 homes gone just in Mississippi. I am glad you are part of the volunteer army that has been so amazing.
Before too many people hang "the government" out to dry, don't forget our beloved insurance companies and their record profits, while dropping coverage, tripling premiums, and refusing claims.

Liam's Mom - Gina said...

My heart is broken for all those many families. Thanks for sharing these stories.

Catherine said...

(soo behind in blog reading)

Thank you for another eloquent post. You work for an amazing organization. We - Americans, Southerners, Yankees, Republicans, Demoscrats, people inside the computer - need to keep the devastation real for everyone. There is still need on the Gulf Coast. It'll never be like it was. But it can be built again.