Weathering Storms

“And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.” Matthew 7:25

As Tropical Storm Cindy bears down on the Gulf Coast, I’m reminded of the anxiety I felt during my first hurricane season in New Orleans. When I moved to the Crescent City from the Blue Ridge in the summer of 2007 to join Teach For America, I took a look around my new home and became frightfully aware of the utter flatness of the landscape. “No wonder these people are terrified of hurricanes,” I thought. “They don’t have any mountains to protect them.” Not only that, but the bodies of water I felt most threatened by could rarely be seen from any vantage point of the city because most of the city is below the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. I felt disoriented in a place where Google maps was spotty at best and everyone gave me directions according to the lake and the river, assuming I knew where these were. These watery monoliths hidden by high levees lurked in my imagination like sea monsters in a mythical tale.

For the first nine weeks of school, I taught in a classroom that was a single trailer on a campus of other single trailers on an abandoned school lot not far from the infamous Industrial Canal that had breached during Katrina, flooding the Lower Ninth Ward. And, Lord, how it rained those first weeks of school. I had never seen storms quite like it. The intense rainstorms and lack of overhead coverings between the trailers often meant that we had to hold students for sometimes hours beyond the normal class time. As a novice teacher, I was unprepared for so much extra time with my students and often let them chat among themselves. The rainstorms conjured up their Katrina stories, and my anxiety heightened as I absorbed the trauma my students shared. I had a foreboding sense that another Katrina was not only possible but inevitable. I remember waking up in the middle of several nights from vivid dreams of an approaching hurricane, and in each dream I was woefully unprepared for what was coming.

In a desperate attempt to counter my rising anxiety, I followed all of the directions on a pamphlet on storm preparedness I had picked up somewhere. I made copies of all of my forms of identification and important documents and sealed them in a Ziploc bag. I got a renter’s insurance policy and paid extra for flood insurance even though I was told I wasn’t in a flood zone. I bought a flashlight, batteries, and a gas can, which I filled up and put under the porch in case I needed to evacuate on a moment’s notice. I made mental lists of all the things I would take with me if a storm came.

Despite all the noise in my head, 2007 was a quiet hurricane season.

In 2008, we weren’t so lucky. In the busyness of the start of the new school year, I wasn’t paying attention to the news. One morning as I walked into the main office, a couple of veteran teachers asked if I had booked a hotel room. “A hotel room? For what?” I asked. “There’s a storm called Gustav in the Gulf,” they said. “You better make plans because all the hotels from here to Tennessee are booked up.” I was a bit rattled, but I figured they were exaggerating, and I re-focused my attention to my lessons for the day. However, it was impossible to get away from the news over the next hours. My students talked incessantly and with much anxiety about the impending storm, swapping phone numbers with each other in case, as happened during Katrina, they became separated forever from some of their best friends. I received several emails about how to secure my classroom, and I had to cover all technology in plastic and move everything off the lower bookshelves of my room. On the way home from work someone from Teach For America called me and informed me she would be my point-of-contact during the storm and asked if I needed help evacuating. By that time all the panic I had felt the previous year was back like a punch in the gut.

Thankfully, I also got another phone call that evening from my Aunt Flo who lives a few hours to the east not far from Pensacola, Florida. She offered her home to me and my friends and assured me that if the storm made a turn toward her part of Florida, I could evacuate with her family to their friend’s farm in Alabama. I ended up taking her up on her offer, and left right after school on the Friday before Labor Day with my roommate Sarah Jean. A mandatory evacuation was officially called in New Orleans the next day, and we were thankful to have left early enough to avoid some of the traffic and bustle of Louisiana’s largest evacuation to date. On Labor Day Sarah Jean and I watched the Weather Channel anxiously all day transfixed by images of waves in the Industrial Canal coming dangerously close to overtopping the levees. Thankfully, this time the levees held. The city remained closed for nearly a full week during which I was safe and sound at my aunt’s house.

The experience, while stressful, served as a good reminder that I wasn’t alone. I had a community of people around me who were looking out for me, from the veteran teachers at my school to Teach For America friends in Baton Rouge and Houston who offered to house New Orleans corps members to my family. I was also empowered to help others by bringing my roommate along with me to safety and by volunteering to pass out food to returning families once I returned to the city. Realizing I had such a strong foundation from which to weather the storm was the silver lining to an otherwise scary situation.

At the close of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in which he preaches about life and hope and trust, he warns those listening that they must not only hear his words but do them. If they do, they will be like the man who builds his house on rock so that it will weather any storm. If they don’t, they will be like the man who builds his house on sand and finds that it falls when the winds pick up and the flood waters rise. I find in all of life’s storms that having a solid support system is crucial to not only surviving but thriving. Whether it’s a relationship ending, a health scare, a job loss, or a physical storm like Cindy, I don’t have the same level of anxiety that I used to feel because I’ve weathered storms before with help from God and with help from my friends.

What about you? What storms have you weathered or helped others weather? Are you ready for the next storm? As always, thanks for reading!

Servant Shirt

Lessons Learned from 1 Year of Blogging