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.