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Displaced by a Natural Disaster

by Ali Wenzke
Displaced by a natural disaster. How one couple found hope after Hurricane Katrina.

Circumstances often force us to move to a new place. But no move is more abrupt than a move triggered by a natural disaster. My heart goes out to those affected by Hurricane Matthew. With over a thousand lives lost and many more homes destroyed, it will not be easy to rebuild. It is a time of great loss, uncertainty, and confusion, but there is also hope. One couple explains how Hurricane Katrina led them to find a home in an unexpected place.

Before the Storm

Shaan and Kaia moved to New Orleans one month before Hurricane Katrina altered their life course forever. As a medical student and a first year surgery resident, Kaia and Shaan set up shop in their new city. They bought their first condo together in the garden district of New Orleans. A bed stood alone in the apartment as they considered how best to furnish the rest of the condo on a medical intern’s salary. Then the warning came. Evacuate. The big one is coming. Pack up a bag and get out of town. So, they did. They looked back at the condo they just bought, not knowing if they would ever get to live there again.

Escaping the Natural Disaster

Displaced by a natural disaster. How one couple found hope after Hurricane Katrina.

It felt like Armageddon.

It was Saturday night, August 27, 2005.  Kaia and Shaan drove west on I-10 to Baton Rouge. Shaan tells me, “They weren’t letting any traffic into the city at that point. The only direction you could go was west. It felt like the Apocalypse or Armageddon.”  Shaan’s friend, Lee, invited the couple to stay with his family in Baton Rouge. Shaan met Lee one month earlier and Lee didn’t think twice before helping his new friend during this time. Shaan and Kaia felt lucky they left on Saturday when the drive only took them two hours. That same drive took seven to fourteen hours for those leaving New Orleans on Sunday morning. No one knew what to expect.

Disaster Strikes

Displaced by a natural disaster. How one couple found hope after a Hurricane Katrina.

When we saw the news, we thought we lost everything.

On Monday, August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina ravages New Orleans. Kaia describes watching the news with Lee’s family and worrying about whether their homes survived. “Our heart broke. The whole area was flooded. We could tell from the pictures and the helicopters that it wasn’t going to be good.” It turned out that Lee and his wife lost their home. With ten feet of water in their home, they lost everything. They explained to their three-year old son that his trucks got stuck in the mud and that his toys were gone. By some miracle, Shaan and Kaia’s home survived and suffered no damage. However, the couple still couldn’t stay.

Medical Residents Scramble For a New Home

All of New Orleans shut down after Hurricane Katrina, including the teaching hospitals. Medical residents couldn’t be trained locally without a teaching hospital, so they relocated the academic center to Baton Rouge. As a surgery resident, Shaan needed access to a hospital and an operating room to learn the skills he needed to become a surgeon. Because he couldn’t work in a clinic, this limited his options. Shaan and Kaia had no family ties to Louisiana, so they decided to look elsewhere for a place to train. With everything in limbo, they worried that staying could affect Shaan’s surgical training. Residents of every other specialty also faced the same dilemma. Programs throughout the country took residents temporarily, but Shaan needed a permanent residency. Not only did it affect his training, but it also impacted where Kaia would start her medical residency as well.

Finding a Home in an Unexpected Place

Displaced by a natural disaster. How one couple found hope after a Hurricane Katrina. www.artofhappymoving.com

We found hope at Stanford and a new home.

After almost a year of uncertainty, Shaan and Kaia found themselves in sunny California. Stanford expanded their surgical residency program that year and a spot opened up for Shaan. Kaia also matched at a residency program in Northern California. Training took Shaan and Kaia to other parts of the country in the years that followed, but they eventually returned to California to raise their kids. Shaan explains, “Because of a natural disaster, we ended up moving to California. Otherwise, we never would’ve considered moving here. It’s far away from our family and everything we know. Now it’s our home.”

Hope After the Storm

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, life looks bleak. Kaia described to me how she cried as she left New Orleans after the storm. She thought of all the people in the Superdome, abandoned, crying and screaming. Kaia wondered how all of these people could be left and neglected. She asked herself, “What are we going to do? What are all those people going to do that can’t just drive away from this? It was sad. Really sad. It was a hard, hard time.”  Somehow, though, Shaan and Kaia put the pieces of their lives back together. It took many months of planning and rebuilding and uncertainty, but they found their place in a city they now call home.

To help others affected by Hurricane Matthew or other natural disasters, please visit the Red Cross.

 

Do you have any stories about being displaced due to a natural disaster? I’d love to hear how you handled this difficult move. Email me at [email protected].

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