When the Water Subsides

The stories of devastation and heroism in the wake of Superstorm Sandy remind me of Hurricane Katrina, particularly the residents of Phoenix, Louisiana, who I got to know during their rebuilding efforts. Despite losing almost all their possessions, people in this close community still shared riches with me. Here’s a story from my visits in 2007. 

 

“Why would anybody live here?”

It was the obvious question for a busload of Midwesterners unpacking our legs after a cramped 16-hour journey from Kansas to the tiny Louisiana town of Phoenix, a town trying to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Swarms of mosquitoes coated the windshield. Humidity fogged our glasses as we hit the heavy air. Lizards scampered for cover among the weedy fields. And this was December. What was July like?

Phoenix, once a town of about 300 and now less than half that, sits 30 miles south of New Orleans, a crater between levees holding back the Mississippi River and a marsh leading to the Gulf of Mexico. Katrina was not the first hurricane to fill the basin. Nor would it be the last.

Homes there sat in water for several weeks after Katrina hit in August 2005. Their owners rode out the storm in shelters and then moved to cities throughout the South. Residents couldn’t return for four months. When they did, they found trees and homes blocking their way. Houses still standing reeked from mold, mud and debris. While thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars poured into neighboring New Orleans, people in Phoenix slogged for FEMA trailers and relief funds and salvaged what little they could.

Our team arrived 16 months after the storm. Some houses had been cleaned out or removed and new foundations laid, but residents still lived in trailers and would for most of the next year. Not one to jump into home projects, I was surprised to be drawn back to Phoenix four more times in the coming year. I worked a bit on homes but mostly fed volunteers and talked with residents. I eventually felt comfortable asking them the question we asked the first time I arrived: “Why do you keep coming back?”

The answer was always the same: “Where would I go? Everyone I know and love is here.”

Some thought they had it easier than I did: “How much warning do you get before a tornado hits?”

I had to concede their point. Several years earlier, my 12-year-old daughter was forced to huddle in the restroom of a convenience store while a twister ravaged a field just across the highway. That night haunted her all summer. The year I traveled to Phoenix saw a record number of tornado touchdowns, with Kansas leading the tally. Two towns were leveled. Four people died.

Do I ever consider moving away because tornado sirens send me to my basement once or twice a year? No, never. I’ve lived in the Kansas City area for nearly 30 years. The people I know and love are here.

And that love is much more powerful than the power of nature. As I befriended a handful of Phoenix residents, I felt the force that drew them back, both to the people they have known their whole lives and to the land their families have owned for more than a century. Embedded in them is the simple truth that I first learned from the world’s most famous Kansas farm girl, herself a victim of nature’s wrath: “There’s no place like home.”

Comments

  1. Would you believe sweet Authorine called me yesterday and left a voicemail. She was concerned about me and my family weathering the storm – Sandy. I called back and left a message that we Kansans were all fine, touched that they still think of us…. I adore my Phoenix friends – still.

    • Remember our progressive Thanksgiving dinner in Phoenix that first year many families were back in their homes? Their full expression of generosity and gratitude taught me true thankfulness. Sadly, that was the last I’ve seen our dear Phoenix friends. How great that you are still in touch with them.

      • I had forgotten about that! Whew we were SO full and so worried about offending anyone at whose house we did not partake that we ate everywhere! Thanks for the reminder!