What do you do when checking off the endless parade of items on your “to do” list ceases to make you feel fulfilled? To find motivation, people tell you to look at your “why” and let that push you through during moments of doubt. I discovered my “why” during one of the most difficult periods of my life–Hurricane Katrina.
It’s August 2005 and I’m sitting in a sweltering attic in New Orleans with my feet dangling over the opening between the attic and the hallway below, nervously watching the water steadily rise beneath my feet. Every time a gust of wind rattled the house, I got an unwelcome peek of the light and rain outside as the corner of the roof lifted ever so slightly. As the wind increased, so did the width of the “peek” outside that I was getting, so in response my arms are wrapped around a low-hanging beam of wood that connects the attic floor to the roof above and I’m sitting there, pulling down with all the might my 125-pound frame could muster to (in my mind) keep it, the roof–and me–from blowing away. As I’m “holding it down”, all the while I’m staring at this one corner of the roof that keeps lifting and saying just one word over and over again–like some sort of mantra – Hold. Hold. Hold.
Throughout what seemed like an endless night, the screams of people being awakened suddenly by the feel of water rushing into their beds can be heard all around me. My neighbors on either side of me—the veteran on disability who was just starting to make progress with his PTSD on the new “meds” he was getting and the couple who weren’t “officially” married, but for all intents and purposes, acted like they were—just without the license and the rings—they hadn’t evacuated either—so I could hear their screams mixing with those of the other people trying desperately not to drown in their own beds. At some point it got eerily quiet—when the eye of the storm passed over—and then on the other side came the sounds of screaming, praying, torrential rain and wind—always more wind.
As Hurricane Katrina barreled through New Orleans, she not only uprooted trees and toppled buildings—she changed the fabric of a community. The people who called the city home would forever be changed—and I along with them.
When I emerged from the attic, I was taken completely by surprise at the sight around me. Everywhere there was water and destruction. Cars were upside down or leaning against houses. Power lines were down in some cases under water and everywhere I turned, one by one there were people crawling out of their houses and churches where they’d taken shelter. Some calling across the streets to other houses to check on the status of their neighbors, others just stunned and looking around them as if trying to wrap their minds around what had happened.
The sky above us was filled with helicopters—some were news crews filming us and the destruction and others were Coast Guard and National Guard rescue copters trying to position themselves to pick up people who, now that they realized they’d survived the storm, were desperate to be lifted out of the flood that remained and pulled to safety.
I stayed between the attic and roof for 2 ½ days waiting to be rescued. Sometimes it was so unbearably hot in the attic that I went outside to the roof—but then I was disgusted by the sight of the news helicopters that flew low to get better camera angles for their stories, but never tried to pluck any of us out of the carnage below—no matter how much we waved, shouted or reached our hands up, looking like small children begging to be picked up.
On the morning of the 3rd day I emerged from the attic and saw—no one. Everyone was gone. Apparently, there was a massive rescue mission the night before–but because my house was in an area surrounded by downed power lines, the airboats couldn’t get through and come close enough for rescuers to reach me. Fortunately, a man came by in a fishing boat that he said had washed up against his house and decided to go house by house to search for those who may have been left behind. He said the rescuers picked up just about everyone and took them to the 2nd floor of the neighborhood school about 2 blocks away where they were then picked up by the copters. He said there were only a few people left at the school who couldn’t fit into the copters so they were coming back today to pick up whomever was left. Since the airboats couldn’t get to the houses, he took it upon himself to do a house by house search to make sure that no one was left behind. This was his moment of impact.
Upon arriving at the school, I looked around at this group of strangers (7 adults and 3 children—including 3 prisoners who’d been released when the jail started to flood and told to fend for themselves) and realized that we weren’t going to survive unless we worked together. So I made a decision. I started talking to some of the men and women about dividing up jobs amongst the group so we could all chip in and help to make this situation a bit more bearable. We had to move from only looking out for our own best interests—getting what we could just for us as individuals—to forming a community that was more focused on pulling together to insure everyone’s survival. That was a moment of impact.
We stayed at the school for another 3 ½ days waiting to be rescued. Finally, a small fishing boat passed by on the way to take supplies to a church where other survivors had been found and we flagged it down and reported our position. Apparently in all the confusion, the last rescue group had forgotten to report that there were still people at our location waiting to be picked up. The supply boat radioed our position and a national guard helicopter showed up and dropped rations and did a headcount and assessment to arrange for us to be picked up the next morning.
“You’re the first people we’ve found alive.”
At 0600 the next morning, a basket was lowered to the school’s roof and one by one we crawled into it and were lifted to the waiting copter. I was the 3rd person to go up and as I was being airlifted off the school’s roof in a twisting basket, I got my first glimpse of the enormity of the devastation. Everywhere as far as the eye could see was covered in water. When I was pulled into the helicopter, the copilot couldn’t help looking back at the 5 of us and grinning. At some point he finally asked if he could take our picture. Now, I’d been trapped in a sweltering attic and holed up in a half-flooded school for almost a week. I was dirty, smelly, sweaty, hairy and exhausted. So I asked him why in the world he wanted a picture of us in this condition and he replied, “You’re the first people we’ve found alive.”
We spent the rest of the ride to the airport in silence, each lost in our own thoughts of what we’d come through and wondering what was ahead.
After landing at the airport, we were transported to a “refugee camp” in Eatonton, Georgia, where once I again I had to make another choice about whether to just get what I needed and leave, or to work together with others (nonprofits, volunteers, businesses and community organizations) to do what would benefit everyone. I felt a connection to the elderly couple, the grandmother and her grandson I’d met in the school and had started looking out for them. Once we were rescued, I took it upon myself to ensure that they remained with me. I wanted to be sure that they were reunited with their family before I could leave. So in my quest to gain resources and ask questions on their behalf, I had others who started coming to me to help them with issues that they were facing. This meant that I would forgo being reunited with my own family so that I could help them. This was a moment of impact.
I, along with a group of others, became a voice for those who did not have a seat at the table when decisions were being made about what was to be done, and in doing so—helped to shape perspectives and facilitate the transition from “top-down” programs to a more inclusive culture of designing approaches and implementing activities based on the collective power of Leading From Within. Through our efforts, we were able to bring our unique perspective to the table and adjust policies, create programs, and bridge the gap between what the people who had gone through the storm actually needed and what the powers that be (rescue organizations, etc.) thought should be done.
That one decision to stay and make a wider impact has shaped my path over the past 14 years. I’ve used what I’ve learned from my Katrina experience to inform my work on Leading from Within with organizations, businesses and communities to assist them by facilitating outcomes through strategic consulting, talent development and applied learning. Through this experience, I went from a Katrina “refugee” who was simply trying to help others, to organizing and running a transition program for 80 families who had been displaced—getting them new housing, finding them jobs, reuniting them with families and helping them to create a life that was in some ways better than the one they lost in New Orleans–to becoming the interim executive director of the private foundation that raised over $300K for Katrina relief efforts and from there expanding my work to assisting organizations and companies to best maximize their greatest resource—people—as they create opportunities for success.
Each of us in our own way has a decision to make. Do we look at our lives in terms of “what’s in it for me?” or do we face each day with the realization that we have an opportunity to use what we have and do what we can where we are—to make an impact.
When you think about your impact, I want you think about those who don’t have a seat at the table, but whose voice YOU can represent through your access and your perspective in helping to shape and influence partnerships and policies.
Your impact may not be felt across a country, or a state or even a city. Your impact may not expand throughout an organization or company. Your impact can be as immediate as the person you open the door for or someone that you give a smile to and extend a helping hand. Your impact can be as big or as small as you want it to be. But most times, what we believe are small acts turn out to be monumental to those who are on the receiving end.
We’re a movement by ourselves, but we’re a force when we’re together. Impact can come in waves that begin as ripples. Every person counts and every action matters.
What impact are YOU going to make?