In August of 2005, the National Weather Service noticed a disturbance in the Gulf of Mexico. We were living in New Orleans at the time, so any rumblings in the belly of the Gulf caused us personal indigestion.
The year prior, in September of 2004, a similar disturbance was noted. The rumblings of 2004 became the gulf shore destruction of Hurricane Ivan. A category three hurricane, the storm wreaked havoc along the Gulf Coast, tearing apart lives from Gulf Shores, AL to Destin, FL (my geographical heartbeat). As residents of the Big Easy at the time, we were warned that Ivan could destroy our city. “Destruction! Devastation! Heartbreak! Death!” The authorities flooded our eyes and ears with pleas for protection (of property and person), prevention (of massive damage), and evacuation.
And the people listened. Terrified of what seemed to be the end of our city as we knew it, houses were boarded, documents and photos entrusted, safety supplies stockpiled, and homes evacuated. As many citizens as could leave, did. Away from our homes, we awaited our impending doom.
But then an interesting thing happened: the storm turned east. What was intended to leave our city lifeless instead took its toll on the white sand beaches of Alabama and Florida. New Orleans had been spared.
So come August of 2005, the people barely listened to the familiar warnings of the NWS. “There’s a disturbance in the Gulf. Destruction! Devastation! Heartbreak! Death!” The authorities did their jobs well: we were informed. We were warned. We were told,” this is the REAL DEAL!” But the people had wearied of such warnings. They had heard it before; more times than once. And accepting the drama of the forecasters was no longer on the residents’ radars. “You say that every year! It has never actually happened. They’re overreacting. We were fine last time; we’re always fine!”
“Nothing is going to happen!”
I, however, was not so convinced. There was something different about this storm. Whether it was God-designed or statistically pertinent, I just had that feeling. So, much to my husband’s chagrin, we boarded the house, grabbed the documents and a couple of boxes of pictures, and hit the road. The first night away, we planted ourselves at a friend’s house only about 40 minutes north of New Orleans. It seemed a fairly safe distance away. In the morning, however, we turned on the news, and that’s when I saw IT. The biggest, most life-like monster I had ever seen, with an eye so big I could stretch a ruler across it. I knew at that moment; this really was the real deal.
During that day, the gnawing feeling in my stomach grew, and I really felt we had to go farther north. Where we currently were was still too close. My husband, convinced we were fine where we were, spoke to the owner of the house about it. “Hey, Jess is getting nervous being this close to the storm. What do you think about it?”
“Well,” he said, “this house is solid. We’ve got 6×6 beams holding up our roof (he then proceeded to show them to my husband). We’re a brick construction with no other buildings around. I think we’ll be ok.”
“But between you and me,” he continued, “if this wasn’t MY house, I’d leave with you. Go.”
Then he handed us $200 cash, prayed for us, and sent us on our way. I couldn’t believe we were leaving him behind. By that point, there were about 20 people seeking shelter in that brick construction, so he had to stay. A good captain stays with his ship, but my heart hurt for him.
Alas, further north we trekked, lodging ourselves with another set of friends in Natchez, MS. In Natchez, I felt we had gotten far enough away from the storm. From there, we just had to wait.
I don’t think I will ever forget that night. August 28, 2005, we watched the news grippingly, waiting to see what would happen; what DID happen. By midnight, we just couldn’t watch anymore, and decided to give it to God and go to bed. During that night, and early morning-August 29, 2005-Hurricane Katrina devoured the city of New Orleans. We went to bed with a storm menacing the Crescent City and awoke to something I cannot believe even now, nine years later.
New Orleans was gone.
An entire city underwater. Homes, businesses, land, animals, and countless people sunken in the result of faulty levees, swirling winds, and torrential rain. Lives destroyed. Livelihoods destroyed. Hopes destroyed. The images flooding the screen and permanently imprinting our minds were unrecognizable landscapes of places that had been our pedestrian familiarity. The familiar faces of locale had become complete strangers to us.
The shock of what we were seeing left us frozen in time. What had happened?! What about the people who hadn’t left? What about our ministry? What about our HOME?
The last question was answered-by the grace of God-very quickly. There had been two main levee breaks during the storm (we would find out later that there were many others as well): the first was on the Industrial Canal in the 9th ward-the site of our ministry. The second was on the 17th Street Canal-the site of our home. We knew instantly that we had lost everything we owned. Within an hour and a half, photo evidence would confirm it: a picture taken on our street corner with water to the rooftops.
When the fear that you have lost your home becomes your reality, there are myriad ways to handle it. I, being one of a dramatic nature, would have expected to perform an Oscar-winning display of lament. However, what God met me with instead a was an incredible peace. “Peace that passes understanding” (Phil. 4:7) There was simply nothing we could do to bring our house back, to undo the storm. It was all just SO big that all I (that WE) could do was to just BE. We had to ride this wave of uncertainty and see where God took us. One day at a time. One step at a time. One breath at a time.
We quickly realized that we would not be heading back to New Orleans anytime soon, seeing as how the whole city ceased to exist. Our next step was to pack our few remaining things back in the car and trek from Natchez, MS to Destin to move in with my husband’s parents.
As we got in the car to leave, we both just kind of sat there for a minute. In that moment, we realized that sitting in that vehicle, we were surrounded by all of our belongings. Everything we owned fit into that one automobile: the two of us, our 19-month old son, our dog and his cage, about four changes of clothes each, documents, a few pictures, a little food, and a tennis racquet (you just never know when you’ll need one…).
And in that same moment, one of the biggest lessons I have ever learned smacked me in the face: right there in that car, not only did I have everything I owned, I also had everything I needed. Food, water, shelter, a few clothes, and a lot of love. Instantly, nothing else mattered. I understood all other things in life to be wants. Needs vs wants etched themselves into my brain like a cattle brand. All at once, all of my former “needs’ seemed trivial and, if I’m honest, embarrassing. How had I gotten to a point in my life where I could so easily mistake “want” for “need”? “I ‘need’ to get a new outfit for the banquet.” “I ‘need’ a new toaster oven.”
The only “need” I had in that moment was for soap! God had “richly supplied all of my needs according to His riches in glory” (Phil 4:19). I don’t mean that in an uber-spiritual, transcend-the-situation way. I knew, in that car, that I really did have everything I needed. My house was gone. Most of my photographs were gone. Belongings held since childhood were gone. The ministry building was gone (parenthetical note: by God’s grace, though displaced, every child we served in that building survived). And yet, we had never been so fully alive.
Since that time, we have been able to attain the material belongings that fill a house. However, I must admit, it was a struggle for me. There was such freedom in being reduced to scant material goods that all new items felt highly burdensome. Additionally, I suffered from such terrible guilt about all the things I had “needed” in the past that I had a hard time justifying the purchase of anything that only took up space. Forget about buying a knick-knack! (Ok, I still can’t do that.)
I have oft been tagged a “minimalist”, which I guess in some ways I am. Clutter and “stuff” brings me to a place of high anxiety. They say that once missionaries to third world countries return to the U.S., they have a very difficult time adjusting to the American way of consumerism. Though I dare not compare myself to someone who has done such noble work as to serve those in a far-off land, this part of the missionary mindset I understand well.
My children have been taught the great difference between wants and needs since the moment they each reached for their first Duplo block. I will hear one saying, “Mommy, I need a….”, to which another cherub barks back, “You don’t NEED it. You WANT it!”
I’m sure I take this too far from time to time, but regardless, I am so grateful to have learned this lesson at all.
God really does supply our needs. Sometimes, the wrapping just looks a little different than we expected.