Katrina ... a year later

I did not wish to relive the events that unfolded on Aug. 29, 2005.

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A dental chair that floated across the street and landed on the concrete slab of a tanning salon.
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I did not wish to relive the events that unfolded on Aug. 29, 2005. But I do think about how much (and not so much) things have changed in Mississippi since the day Hurricane Katrina visited.

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My daughter, Stephanie, getting a brick from Pass Christian Middle School (in Mississippi).
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On Thursday, Aug. 25, 2005, the most exciting part of my life was about to begin. I had no clue that within a week it would end. I had my first clinic session for my last year of dental hygiene school. It was a normal day filled with the usual nerves of what I may have forgotten over the summer, catching up with classmates, and waiting for final clinic checks. But I made it through the day.

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From left, at the food tent: husband Guy, daughter Stephanie, Andrea, son Andrew, and Meredith Bang, principal of Pass Christian Elementary School
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I left the clinic not knowing my life was about to change in ways that would bring me to the edge of Hell and back.

The Pearl River Community College dental hygiene class of 2006 started the first week of our final year of school with no idea it would be our last for several weeks. None of us gave any thought to Katrina because she was predicted to hit Florida not once, but twice. We would soon realize even the weathermen cannot predict nature.

Katrina made landfall on Monday, Aug. 29. I could not account for my classmates. We had not said goodbye to each other on Thursday. The school is in Poplarville, which is about 40 miles northeast of my home in Pass Christian on the coast. We were not able to get hold of anyone in the state. I am grateful to T-Mobile, as were some of the very few people who had cell phone service. We were at least able to call and put the minds of family and friends at ease. It was days before we realized how the rest of the world was seeing our state. When we learned Katrina was headed our way, we packed all of the belongings we could fit into our vehicles because we were sure our house would no longer be standing after the storm.

But today I am standing in my house. A few months in a FEMA trailer makes even the smallest home feel like a mansion. A few people still live in FEMA trailers. As I write this, one man is still waiting to get his FEMA trailer.

I can remember driving up to my house and thanking God it was still standing. Then I went inside and cried over the damage. At the time it seemed like every good thing was followed by something bad. We decided to drive to Pensacola in the Florida Panhandle for food, water, and whatever we could get our hands on. As we pulled onto Interstate 10 that afternoon, it started to pour. When we returned a few days later, the part of our house that had not gotten wet was now sopping wet.

Friends never seen but cherished

In the summer of 2004, I had the honor of meeting Amy Nieves via the Internet. I contributed some of my class notes to her student Web site at Amyrdh.com, and we developed a friendship. I later joined the online e-mail RDH community that Amy operates. We call ourselves “listers.” I did not realize it at the time, but the listers would be the biggest support for my family’s recovery.

When we got to Pensacola, I was able to get online and e-mail family and friends, then I decided to check in on the listers. That’s when I saw a post that they were starting a listers’ relief fund. Amy Nieves started it, Anne Guigon set it up, and Jane Weiner hunted me down to get funds to us. There were many others on the list who were affected by Katrina, and they, too, received support through the lister fund. My lister “sisters and brothers” have kept the fund very active.

Because of this fund my family was able to have a little more comfort in a time when comfort seemed impossible. It was also because of this great support that I developed a completely new desire for my career.

Weird-looking tanning chair

Our first attempt to drive back into our town, Pass Christian, was cut short by a house in the middle of the road and mud everywhere. My emotions didn’t want to go any further. When we finally made it to town, it was much worse than I imagined. Friends’ homes were not where they used to be, and our favorite restaurant no longer existed. There were holes in the places where we had stood the year before to catch Mardi Gras beads.

As we drove down one street, I remember a chair on the slab where the tanning salon used to be, thinking, “Now that is one weird-looking tanning chair.” My husband saw it too, but he correctly identified it.

“Look at that dental chair!”

It had floated across the street from the dental office and landed on the concrete slab. The poor dentist lost his livelihood, and his patients lost their dentist. As we looked on the corner of the same street, there was our bank vault, but no bank.

As the weeks and months went by and we drove along Highway 90 from Pass Christian to Biloxi, it was like a nightmare. Huge oak trees fallen, no signs of life, empty slab after empty slab, pieces of people’s lives hanging in the trees, and huge piles of debris. My mother and sister visited us nine months after the storm and could not believe that we thought things were cleaned up. To them, it looked like Katrina had just hit.

Our daughter, Stephanie, drove on an ATV into Pass Christian the day after the storm, only to find she had no school. A few months later we took Stephanie to the school grounds to get a brick. We took pictures of her picking one up. What a sad sight it was.

The sun shining again

My son, Andrew, remembers hearing the following announcement a few days before Katrina hit: “When the storm clears the sun will shine again.” How true! The amazing thing to me is the outpouring of generosity people have shown to, among other things, our school district. Although Andrew’s school survived the storm, parts of it were flooded, including the library. The library opened again a few weeks ago, on Aug. 4, when the kids returned to school. Yea! Approximately 90 percent of the staff in the Pass Christian school district were left homeless, yet all returned to educate the kids. How awesome is that?

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The kids’ bedroom. Through the window you can see the tarp that was on the roof until sometime in January.
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Donations steadily came in from all over the country. But I want to acknowledge Ridgefield, Conn. The children raised money and held book drives for our kids, and it fills my heart with joy to know that these children have such big hearts. It was one of my lister sisters, Christel Autori, RDH, BS, who e-mailed me to tell me that her home town in Connecticut adopted my town. Another friendship was formed. Christel sent me a package with all of the articles from her local paper about all that was being done to help Pass Christian.

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Our bank reopened in War Memorial Park, in a trailer.
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After the storm, I heard that my school in Poplarville was destroyed. Then I heard parts of it were, but not the dental hygiene facility. As the days went by, we slowly learned who lost what in our class. I had doubts that some people would return.

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A house that washed up under the islands at the local gas station during the storm.
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But we all did return. We now had to put our lives back together and finish the most stressful year of our education.

National boards arrived before we knew it, and we needed a review course. Jane Weiner, RDH, decided she would do whatever was necessary to come give us her review. So imagine my amazement when I heard Hurricane Wilma had hit her home in Florida, yet she still came. I contacted dental companies to see if they would donate products to Jane’s review as giveaways, in hope of shining a little light on my classmates. With Jane’s help we received enough that everyone walked away from the review with something. Jane does not usually do giveaways at her review course, but she made an exception this time.

A year ago, the excitement of my life was starting my last year of dental hygiene school. Today, I have my license in hand. I currently work part-time at the Kiln Family Dental practice in Kiln, Miss.

A year ago, I was not frightened by thunderstorms. Today, I go into the bedroom to cry from fear. I’m still working through this fear.

A year ago, I hated that my toilet was so low to the ground. Today, I’m thankful my toilet flushes and is mine.

A year ago, I was a different person than I am today. I learned how lucky I am to have my friends and family, that everything can be taken away, and there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop it.

A year ago, I sat in my living room in the pitch black with a pistol in case someone came looting and I had to do some shooting. Today, I can lock my door, go to bed, and sleep because I have absolutely nothing anybody else wants or needs.

A year ago, we drove into our town that was covered in mud and destroyed. Today, there are FEMA trailers scattered here and there and the weeds are high. City Hall is in trailers; I’m not even sure where the police department is; and I do not see how the coast will recover from this.

A year ago, the online dental hygiene community was where I went when I needed help or wanted to learn things not taught in school. A year later, it is a community of friends who not only help with dental hygiene things, but who care enough to be concerned about my life.

I never thought I would connect with people the way I have since Katrina. The greatest support has been from people I have never met, and if it were not for them, my family would not be where we are in the recovery process. The best news is that this week FEMA picked up our trailer and our yard looks like our yard again. We still have a lot of work to do on the house, but it’s livable and we’re thankful to have so many wonderful friends.

Hurricane Katrina did not discriminate. She affected everyone on the Gulf Coast - rich, poor, young, old. Everyone lost something or someone. But signs of rebirth are appearing, and one day the Mississippi Gulf Coast will be what it was before Hurricane Katrina. It might be even better.

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