by Amanda LeBlanc
No matter how much time passes, I remember it like it was yesterday. It was Saturday, August 26, 2005. My oldest was 2 and my baby was only 8 weeks old. Early that morning, around 5 a.m., I was watching the news as Hurricane Katrina moved into the Gulf. Having lived in south Louisiana all of my life, I had never heard anyone discuss a mandatory evacuation for the actual city of New Orleans. I immediately knew we had to leave.
Here is some background on my life in Louisiana: I was no stranger to hurricane evacuations, as I had been there my entire life. At the time of Hurricane Katrina, I was living in New Orleans proper near the well-known area of the 17th Street Canal, where a breech in the levee caused New Orleans to sit under water during this incredible storm. Our home was built in 1942 and had never taken on even an inch of water. I was asked at least 100 times why I would live in a city that I knew was under sea level and place my family and myself at risk. The answer is easy—my family had been there for generations, dating back to the time of the Louisiana Purchase (as had most of the people of south Louisiana). We are a people steeped in family traditions and rich French heritage. We know the person next door and the person two blocks down. They are not just our neighbors; they are our friends, and chances are, we are relatives or friends with someone related to them. It was and will always be my home. We believed that we were protected by a sophisticated levee system created and built by the Army Core of Engineers. There are more reasons to live in New Orleans than an outsider could understand and there is so much more to New Orleans than the French Quarter.
As I drove away from my home at 1 p.m. that Saturday, I knew Katrina was going to be a bad storm, but I had no idea what was coming.
On Tuesday, August 29, 2005, I sat in the den of my sister’s house outside Montgomery, Alabama. I watched as the news reported that New Orleans had dodged the bullet. I remember a feeling of relief as I continued working on designs for a client’s new home. Later that morning, the news changed. The levees broke and now my home was sitting under 12 feet of water. I kept imagining there was a protective wall around my house. We spent the day calling family friends. The lines were clogged. We finally spoke to a neighbor, who had taken a boat to our house to find only the peak of our roof visible, confirming our house was under water.
For days I felt dizzy. Nothing was real. There were moments of sheer panic where I thought I would pass out, but I never did. I secretly wanted to just feel some relief from the pain. It’s hard for people outside New Orleans to understand Katrina. Some people would try to comfort me, talking about how they lost their homes in fires and knew how I felt. While I appreciated their attempts to comfort, they lost their homes, not their entire city.
I went to bed one night with a home, neighbors, family living near, a way of life, and the next day, it was all wiped away. Loved ones were scattered across the United States. The grocery around the corner: gone. The daycare where my babies went to school: gone. I didn’t just lose my stuff. I lost my life. It’s unimaginable.
Because we never dreamed we wouldn’t return home after the storm, we left with two suitcases, our two babies, and our two dogs. I had to let go of every item in my home.
In the days and weeks following Katrina, I would lie in bed at night packing up all of the belongings I missed. I would close my eyes picturing myself walking through the doors of my house. It was so real I could smell all of the familiar smells. I would walk through touching each item I wanted to pack and take with me. As the days and weeks went by, I packed less and less until there was nothing left to take with me. I had made peace with my pain.
As a professional organizer, I came to realize the gift that this storm had provided me. I knew that my talent to help others organize and simplify their lives was one from God. I had prayed for God to help me find a way to reach others. Life is not about our stuff, but about the people in it. How appropriate that I would go through the ultimate purge! God can be so cool like that. I don’t regret anything that happened during Katrina or that we suffered such loss. It shaped the very person I am today, molding me to help thousands of other people through other types of loss or letting go.
I can tell you this: I wasn’t prepared for the unimaginable. I didn’t have a plan, a copy of all of my important documents, or a box of family photos to throw in the car. In life, we can’t always predict the danger around the corner, but there are things we can do to prepare in case of emergency. An emergency preparedness kit can help you through most situations. There are dozens of websites you can visit that lay out ideas of what to include. More than a kit, I recommend that you prepare your life. Get rid of the clutter in your home and in your life. Let go of the things that don’t really matter. Make room for what matters most: the people in your life.