On August 28, 2005, I was sitting on my friend K’s front porch with 3 of my closest, childhood friends. None of us had to go to work the next day, as the weather was already predicted to be awful. It was around 10:00 in the evening. We were enjoying the vacation: staying out later than normal on a Sunday night, catching up, feeling removed from the threatening weather regardless of the forecasts.
Some background before I go on: I live in Canton, Mississippi. It is a small-town about 20 miles north of Jackson. It is a quaint place, known for, among other things, the bi-annual event of the Canton Flea Market (especially among those from Louisiana).
K. lives with her grandmother in an enviable antebellum home one block from the Historic Canton square. It is a marvel, with an oak tree in front bearing resurrection moss, a frequent conversation piece and photo op at said Canton Flea Market. That house holds my sanctuary: a comfortable, inviting screened-in porch where I have my own seat and have spent hours upon hours, talking, laughing, crying, reading, and finding solace. It is my home away from home. It is, hands down, one of my favorite places on earth. But the house itself is, indeed, magnificent and could easily be mistaken for a sorority house. If Canton had a college campus, Chi Omega (my sorority of choice, but feel free to substitute yours here) would be stamped underneath the awning.
So on that particular night, as the city was quiet except for our outbursts of giggles at each other’s stories that we were so thankful to trade and hear, headlights appeared, 5 in a line, directly across from K’s house. They were in front of City Hall, which, obviously, was closed. We were curious. All four of us walked out the screened porch, onto the planked front porch, and down the stairs to find out who was parking across the street from K’s house at that time of night and why. Immediately, we saw car doors opening and closing, people (seven of them) milling about, gathering on City Hall’s lawn, checking on one another. A pretty blonde who looked to be close to our age was crying. I walked across the street and approached them. Honestly, I can’t remember who I talked to first, but it didn’t take long to get their story.
They were from New Orleans. What was normally a 4 hour journey had turned into ten. They were all related: cousins, daughters, girlfriends, boyfriends, mothers, fathers. They were trying to get to Memphis, and ultimately, Little Rock. They had jam packed everything that meant something to them into their vehicles. They were exhausted, scared, frustrated. And then one spoke up. Her name was Joan. She asked if I knew of a bed and breakfast in Canton. I did not. Funny that, now, a bed and breakfast was born since then in a home not 100 feet from where we stood. It is now for sale. If interested, here is the link.
I told her that a shelter had been established that day at the First Baptist Church Family Life Center, but that was not what she was looking for. They wanted a comfortable place to lay their heads, and they were not looking for charity. They were willing to pay, but they knew Jackson had been saturated with others from their stomping grounds and were traveling north, and Joan had been to the Flea Market. She remembered my hometown as the precious place that it is and felt that, surely, it would have a bed and breakfast.
I wanted so badly to give them direction. Jen, her daughter, was the one crying. She was so tired. She was so sick of being in the car. She was scared. Her emotions had, quite simply, taken over, and it was the logical reaction. Then it dawned on me. My family owned a condo not 15 miles from where we stood, directly across the parking lot from the condo my husband and I shared, and lo and behold, our tenants had moved out. That day. The electricity was still on. The water was still on. It was void of furniture, but it had bathrooms. It had a refrigerator and a stove. It had heat and air.
And they had air mattresses.
Since this day, we have laughed many times over my offer to house them in our empty condo. They call me their angel. To that I say, “Anyone who knows me might call me many things, but angel is far down the list. And besides, y’all could have been a band of serial killers. Thank you for not robbing me blind and stabbing me in my sleep. Who is the lucky one here??!”
So, the four of us went to our respective houses and gathered linens. I called our exhausted ex-tenant and asked him, very boldly, knowing he wanted to reach through the phone and throttle me, to drive back to the condo and leave the key under the mat. Then I led a caravan of misplaced New Orleanians to Deerfield, the subdivision where I lived and where our condo sat, dark and empty. Never would that place have life breathed into it like it did when those precious folks took up residence for a week and half.
It was so late by the time our new friends got settled into their temporary home away from home, but the next morning, all of us trickled in and out of our respective homes, quickly learning the important stuff about each other and slowly learning the details. We pretended it was a party. Katrina made landfall that day. I vividly remember driving through the rain and scary winds with two young girls I barely knew in the car, fearing the trees that lined the road were going to snap and fall on my car with every gust of wind, and praying, out loud, for safety. I’m not sure what time it was that day that both condos lost power, but my husband, Scott, fired up the grill and we pulled out everything out of the freezer we were afraid wouldn’t survive and had a feast. Our friend Casey, who lived a couple condos down, brought over his guitar and we were given a concert. Our neighbor Hal brought over his dog, Capone, and kept our new friends in stitches. We were oblivious to the misery that Katrina was already bestowing upon on homes and lives of the people we were easily coming to love.We didn’t have t.v. We didn’t have the internet. We just had each other.
The next day, when we weren’t sure how long it would be before our lights came back on, ALL of us traveled from Deerfield which is just outside the city limits of Canton, into the city proper to my parent’s house. Our power source was through Entergy; they had CMU (Canton Municipal Utilities). We were out; they were still on. Big, huge, ginormous shout out to our local company. If CMU goes down, the world is coming to an end.
So we set up shop at Mama and Daddy’s, and we all bonded in ways we could have never fathomed. About twelve bodies in one house. Those Louisiana folks, however, know how to make the best of a bad situation. My mother, not much of a drinker, could not fathom the amount of alcohol that could be consumed by less than a dozen people. And our new friends could not believe that my daddy, the man they crowned “The Don of Canton,” could find them gas for their cars in light of the pandemonium that had become gas stations as far north as Memphis. I desperately wish I could find the video of Jen and Joan singing a song they made up about the whole experience. We waited in lines. We filled coolers with ice. We laughed. We told stories. We rode out the storm.
We got electricity back after about a day, so we all moved back “home,” Scott and me to our real home and our Louisiana friends to their temporary one. They did everything they could to find out about the state of affairs at home, and what they learned brought even me to tears.Ron, Joan’s significant other, was a ball of nerves. His job at Oschner Hospital in New Orleans was calling him every thirteen seconds. He was a stomach ulcer waiting to happen. Friends were calling and texting all four of them to see if they had heard anything about their neighborhoods, their businesses, their churches. No one had many specifics, and though they had no idea just how heart-wrenching it would ultimately be, they knew it was bad.
And then we found out that the levees broke.
When they would finally be let back in, they would not be returning to the same city they lived in and loved. It would be changed…forever. In this, we, too, grieved for their individual losses and for the collective loss that New Orleans was facing. The residents trapped in attics and atop roofs. The store owners being looted. The restaurants that could not feed its’ hungry. The bodies that lay on sidewalks, under sheets, commemorated by makeshift headstones.
The Big Easy was in crisis, and as lovers of NOLA, we hurt as if we, ourselves, were experiencing a death. It wouldn’t be until much later that we truly saw the devastation the storm inflicted on a city we treasure. It wouldn’t be much later until we truly saw how hard our friends would have to work to achieve normalcy again. It wouldn’t be much later until we realized the lengths our own state would have to go through in order to rebuild.
But in the meantime, we focused our efforts on helping them feel safe, secure, and comfortable until they could go home. Rob took his two girls back to Louisiana as soon as he possibly could, and we found out later they were all staying in his office on cots until they could get home. We wished they had continued to stay with us. So for over a week, it was Ron and Joan, Jen and Kenny. Friends brought food to them. They cooked gumbo and other traditional, yummy Cajun cuisine for us. Jen cut our hair, as she was in school to be a stylist (and is now a very successful one; She works here and she did this.). We emptied our attic and our friends’ attics and found temporary seating, utensils, televisions, and décor. We did what we could do to make them feel at home when, inside, they were feeling quite the opposite.
Finally, after the water receded and people were making their ways back to the city, our friends decided it was time to go see the damage for themselves. That was a sad day for me. They left behind thank you notes, an angel pin that I still keep in my wallet, a rosary that was given to Jen by her grandfather (that this Southern Baptist has hanging on a lamp beside her bed), and their friendship, their laughter, their heartache, their leftovers, their silliness. Mostly, they left behind their kind, loving, gentle spirits. They left me with a part of them.
Finding our friends during the storm brought the storm home to us. Without them, we would have experienced a power outage for less than 24 hours, and we would have relied on the media to tell us their stories. Instead, we saw first-hand what they felt when Joan and Ron found out a tree had fallen on their house and Jen found out hers was full of water. We realized how un-fun it is to eat MRE’s and to wait on FEMA to declare your home eligible for assistance. And they realized how strong they are, how strong their city is, and how resilient New Orleanians really are. We all learned how much we are all alike, and we hurt with them, we worried with them, we cried for them…
…because we found them on the side of the road and came to love them.
We still do.
As the anniversary of Katrina approaches and as Isaac threatens our state (though The Weather Channel has referred to us as “the land mass between New Orleans and Mobile.” Yeah. Here was that land mass’s response), I recall every detail of that week and a half 7 years ago with a sense of humility and gratitude. We were spared. We lost virtually nothing. We gained life-long friends who lost much. By living with them through such a tumultuous time, we gained empathy. We learned to pray differently. We learned to trust fully.
Should Hurricane Isaac wreak havoc on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, New Orleans, Mobile, and beyond, we have friends who won’t be wandering aimlessly on the streets of Canton, looking for a place to stay. The offer has already been extended, and even if it had not, I feel confident in the fact that they would load up their cars, drive north, pull off at the Canton exit and into our driveway because they know they can…not just during a storm, but anytime. They are now our friends, in my opinion, brought to us by a God who knows us better than we know ourselves, who gives us opportunities that will define us, who brings people into our lives that he knows we need, even if we don’t.
Though we don’t share the same blood, they are my family.
And I was not their angel. They were mine.
~May God keep all of you safe as the water and wind approach, and may we never forget.~