It was Saturday morning. Beautiful blue skies and birds chirping and all that picturesque stuff.
Carl and I were sitting in our living room, waiting on the girls to wake up, and we made a decision.
It was time to evacuate.
We had been following the weather updates and had just seen the newscast that showed the New Orleans mandatory evacuation bulletin. We had been waiting for the Navy to give the “get out of dodge” sign, but that never happened. So, after talking it over, we decided that we would never take the risk with the kids. We were not going to ride it out, we were leaving. There was a moment of irritation, we had done this many times before and it always was pointless. But we still took it seriously and set about getting the kids up and getting out the door. Carl took care of the logistics. He called our friends Tom and Jen who lived in Jacksonvill, FL and asked if we could hang at their house for a few days. It seemed easier than going to Mom’s house. Jen had two kiddos very close in age to our two, so they already were set up to deal with babies. They happily accepted and said we could stay as long as we needed. Then Carl got busy doing guy stuff…packing the computer, phones, weapons, and making sure we had extra oil and antifreeze in the blazer. I got the kids up and dressed, fed, and packed up some clothes. Annalea was only one at the time, so she was easy. Grace was five. She had just started kindergarten and knew something serious was up, so I had to sit and explain it to her. There was a storm coming. It looked like it would be bad, so we had to leave to be safe. And being that there was a chance we wouldn’t be coming back, she had to think very carefully about what she wanted to take. She could take three things, any three things she wanted. And then I sat back and let her think and choose. And she very carefully selected those three items that she couldn’t live without. She chose her stuffed animal, a picture of me and her Cha-Chi, and her favorite chapstick.
As I sit here and type this, I remember how seriously she considered all her prized possessions before making her decision. My beautiful five year old baby girl should never had to have made that choice, let alone understand the implications of what we were doing. But she did. The room that she shared with her sister was covered in little girl stuff….toys, stuffed animals, games, dress up clothes and books. Her whole life was in that room. The things that entertained her, made sense to her, and held significant memories for her were in that room. And I was asking her to leave it all but for the three things she held in her hands. I am amazed at her strength, her ability to understand, and her natural joy and optimism that helped her (and us) focus on the positive side.
We closed the door to her room, headed down the stairs, and got into the car. It was time for a drive. What should have taken us around 7 hours took us almost 12. There was so much traffic that I don’t have the words to describe it. I don’t think it let up until we were well into Florida. We got to our friends house very late and crashed til the next day. Then, we just hung out, did a little sightseeing and had ice cream. We didn’t watch tv and didn’t make a point to watch the news. We decided after three days that we should be safe to head on home. In retrospect, we were like turtles with our heads in our shells. We had no idea the havoc that Hurricane Katrina had wreaked.
As we headed towards home in the middle of the week, we still had no idea what had happened. However, when we got to the panhandle of Florida, we realized we couldn’t get into Alabama. At all. There were no roads open, they all were closed to any traffic headed west. As we were hanging out trying to decide if we could go around, we stopped and asked a police officer why the roads were closed. He looked at us as if we were idiots….hadn’t we seen the news??
We decided to get a hotel and have dinner and give the kids a break from the car. As the kids ate pizza and played on the bed in the room, we flicked on the tv and were immediately bombarded with pictures and videos of the destruction that had been left in the wake of Katrina. We were in complete disbelief. It was unimaginable.
I’m sure many of you watched the same newscasts….but not with our perspective. We knew, watching those pictures cross the screen, that we weren’t going home. Ever. We doubted that we had a home to go back to. At this point we tried calling people, and no one was answering. Of course the phone lines were down and cells were useless. We finally got through to a friends wife who said our apartment complex was flooded up towards 8 feet. And I don’t even want to talk about the people who actually tried to stay there through this….horror story upon horror story. And all we could do was thank God that we decided to leave…that we actually had a place to go to.
At this point, we still hadn’t heard anything from Carl’s chain of command, and decided to head on up to Mom’s in Indiana. The next day was an easy 8 hours north, and we arrived to my moms tired, sad, and relieved to be in a place where we could recoup and figure out what to do.
There was an outpouring of support from the city where Mom lives. We had a ton of donated clothes and toys for the girls. The office my mom worked at took donations to help us…but we were lucky. Carl was still getting a paycheck unlike most of those affected by the hurricane. After about a week or so, he finally heard from his chain of command that he had to report back to the base (what was left of it). So, we outfitted him with my mom’s camper and lots of supplies and gas cans. We knew he’d need food, gas, and a place to live while down there. We’d heard it was a mess, lootings, fighting, food and gas nonexistant. It was scary to send him down there, but if he was going, he was going to go prepared!
So, while he went down to offer military support, we set up camp at moms. I enrolled Grace in school there near the house, and life went on. We got up, went to school, cooked and shopped like normal. But it was all very surreal.
Everything we had was gone. I got updates from Carl about the state of, well, everything. Sometimes he just couldn’t find the words to describe the scene to me. Our apartment buildings first story was totally submerged and there was mold growing on everything. It was a total loss. The second floor’s roof caved in and there was fiberglass on everything in the girls room. The only thing that made it was our room and the washer and dryer. We had some things in a storage unit a little further inland and all that stuff made it just fine. But there was nothing that we needed for everyday use that was salvageable. It was all a wash.
A few months later, Carl (and others) were offered an early out. We took it. We were done with the military, with living near the ocean. We decided to get him out, and start over in Colorado.
Then, by Christmas of that year, we were living, sparsely, in a rental house near Denver. But that, my friends, is another story completely.
So what’s the lesson here you ask?
We learned, 7 years ago, that things just aren’t important. Sure, you are sitting there saying you know that. But do you LIVE it? We did…God decided that we needed to be smacked upside the head with that lesson I guess. But we figured out at that moment that there wasn’t anything on this earth more important to us than US. As long as we were together, we ‘d be fine…cheesy, I know, but so true. Through a series of events, God took us through many twists and turns, and landed us here, in this camper, finding immense value in the simplest of things.
Carl is in Houston, working. Grace is doing school, Sylar and Annalea are playing on the floor. I have a yummy cup of coffee, a roof over my head, and a little money in my pocket. Sure, my entire home could fit in your garage, but can you honestly look at what you have and find the same value that I see in what I have?
I don’t know. I haven’t read your story, so I won’t presume to judge. But I go to sleep every night with a prayer of thanks, and wake up every morning with the same. We are where we are because of where we’ve been. As scary as it was to live through what we’ve been through, I wouldn’t change a thing. Here, now, being in this place, makes it all worth it.
As my friend Jen says, “my cup runneth over….s’good stuff”.