After catastrophe, lessons from lives rebuilt
Some who have lost everything to storms, fires, or earthquakes learned the value of people - as well as photos and personal files.
Mimi Doe was only 10 years old in August 1969 when hurricane Camille, a Category 5 storm, pounded the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It leveled her family's beachfront home in Pass Christian, Miss. In an instant, the antebellum-style house with white pillars was gone. So was everything in it - family antiques and heirlooms, legal papers and documents, toys and photo albums.Skip to next paragraph
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"We had to start over," says Mrs. Doe, now an author in Concord, Mass.
Those five words sum up the huge task facing hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Stripped of houses and belongings, they face daunting questions: Where will we live? How do we replace possessions? How can we rebuild homes and lives?
Doe and others who have come through harrowing experiences and sustained huge losses know firsthand the severity of the challenge. But they have also learned that out of devastation and destruction, ashes and floods, can rise a new life - often radically different, but one with new perspectives and reordered priorities.
"People who have had this forced on them often make changes," says Al Siebert, a psychologist specializing in resiliency. "In the process of doing this, they discover a better version of themselves. They find different skills and abilities."
Doe's family began a new life in Escanaba, Mich. Her parents built a very simple house on Lake Michigan totally unlike their former 120-year-old home.
"We never really mourned the loss of things, except for photographs," Doe says. "It was a terribly sad thing, of course. We talked about certain things we would miss, but we sort of moved on."
Not all of their losses could be listed on insurance claims. Doe didn't miss her great-grandparents' portraits, the crystal chandelier, or her canopy bed, but she did miss the South. "It was more about missing that lifestyle," she says, "that wonderful, quirky, rhythmic Southern way of living soulfully - a friendly, open, slower-paced life. I did not complete a Southern childhood."
She also missed her friends, some of whom were killed in the storm. "The overriding life impact that hurricane Camille had on me and my three siblings and my parents was the idea that what really matters is not things, but the people in our lives - our family, our friends, and our faith. That's something we can always hold onto. Things are transient. Things come, things go. None of us is overly attached to things."
For James and Maureen Halderman, life started over at 4:30 one July morning in 1992. A huge earthquake sent their house in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., plummeting 20 feet. The couple's three children were trapped for four hours. Finally freed, they jumped in the car, still in their pj's. As they drove off, the house blew up.
Their new life began in Cleveland, where they stayed with Mrs. Halderman's brother. Although they had earthquake insurance, they discovered that they could not collect unless they rebuilt on the same spot. "There wasn't a spot to rebuild on," Halderman says.
With the $7,000 they received for the loss of their personal property, they made a down payment on a house in Cleveland. Relatives gave them used household items. They bought clothes at thrift shops.
For Halderman, as for others who lose everything, one of the biggest challenges was replacing important papers. "That was terrible," she says. "Birth certificates, Social Security cards, my nursing license - everything. I tried to get a driver's license, and I couldn't prove who I was."
Today she keeps a metal lock box under the bed for important documents. Her brother stores copies in another lock box.