This can’t be real… I thought to myself, looking up at the forty-foot yacht balanced on top of the roof of the decimated two story house I stood out front of. In the drive way was a mini-van with a couch sticking out of the broken windshield and the yard was layered two feet deep in splinters, wreckage, debris and belongings, all covered in a septic, rotting mud. I tried not to breathe. The smell made me want to vomit and cry at the same time and my heart felt as if it had been stabbed with a knife. My mind swirled and my legs shook underneath me as I walked down what was once a beautiful street in Slidell, Louisiana, taking in the utter destructive power of hurricane Katrina. The air was so heavy with loss, death and destruction that it was almost suffocating and it felt thick and hard to move in. Everywhere I looked, I saw entire lives ripped to tiny, unsalvageable shreds and as I watched these people quietly wade through the wreckage that was once their homes, searching for anything worth rescuing, I knew in my gut that this was the worst thing I that I would ever encounter in life.
Four days after hurricane Katrina made landfall and ravaged New Orleans, I hit the road for Louisiana, feeling for the first time in my life the universe demanding of me immediate action. I was only eight hours away and I couldn’t justify not responding to the cry for aid from the human beings suffering in the state next to me, so I dropped everything and just went. Nothing can prepare you to face something like what Katrina left behind, but when I rolled into Slidell, on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, I was irrevocably shaken to core. No words could adequately describe the apocalypse that I found there. But, as with all darkness, there are glimmers of light that can always be found and strangely enough, Katrina showed me the worst thing I’d ever seen and the best, on the same day.
As I walked down that street, I wondered how anybody could be of help. It was all completely destroyed… just gone. There was absolutely nothing left to save and my heart broke at my feeling of uselessness. The apocalyptic landscape around me began to close in and would have maybe dragged my soul into the wreckage with it had the alien sound of laughter not drifted across the ruin and into my heart. Laughter?? Who in the world could be laughing right now?? I had to know and I followed it. Turning around a street corner, I found a group of people sitting on mud caked couches in the middle of the shambles that were once one of their homes, laughing, drinking and conversing with each other with all the love and light I had ever seen. Someone saw me and yelled excitedly to me, “Hey! Hey you! Come over here and join us!”
I introduced myself and when I told them I had come from Texas to help, they all cheered loudly holding their beers up in the air to me, thanking me. A cold beer was pressed into my hand and I took a seat on a muddy couch next to the owner of the splintered home, still confused and in shock from going so quickly from such hell to finding such love and fellowship amongst it. “I don’t get it…” I began, ” You guys just lost everything. How in the world are you sitting around this circle, so happy and unworried about this…?” He smiled at me and gestured towards the jaunty group of people around us. “These people are all my neighbors and family,” He explained, “They’re all here. We’re all still alive and we all still have each other. That’s worth celebrating.” The weight of what he said sank into my bones and I took a long drink of my beer as I studied the people around me. “Come with me,” He said, “I’d like to show you something.”
He walked me to the area of wreckage that used to be the front porch of his home and pointed to the only thing in his yard left standing… a flag pole. Tattered, dirty and tired, but still blowing in the gulf coast breeze, was an American flag. “You see,” He said, “Mother Nature can take every possession we own. It can wash away our streets, our infrastructure and our businesses, schools, and homes… but it can’t take who we are. It can’t take our sense of community away and it can’t destroy the basic connection we have as human beings that brings us together in times of need. It can’t keep away people like you, who have answered the call and have come here to aid us. This is what makes our country great and reveals the true hearts of our fellow human beings. This flag, that faced the winds of Katrina and still stood steadfast when everything else crumbled, is a message to us that says just that.” He unfastened the clips that held the flag to the pole and handed it to me. “Take this, and never forget what really matters in life. The fact that you are here, means more to us than any piece of property or possession.” And with that, he smiled at me and turned to walk back to the group, leaving me standing there speechless with the tattered flag draped across my arms.