In the summer of 2005, Kendall Ketterlin was living in Colorado Springs, in the process of buying his first home, working at a bank and planning another trip to D.C. to fundraise for a political action group. Six months after he returned home, he was driving through South Dakota, on his way to theology school in Minnesota and permanently retired from any career in politics. What caused everything in his life to change?
Remembering God is the story of a volunteer’s experience working Hurricane Katrina relief. First with the Red Cross in Louisiana and then with Catholic Charities in Mississippi. In all, he spent two months, each day experiencing something life changing, in the people he met and situations he met.
As he wrote in the introduction: “More than simply sharing my own personal experiences, (Remembering God) is about bringing to light an aspect of Katrina’s (and then Rita’s) aftermath that’s been left in the dark. It’s about the impact that Katrina made on the life of a volunteer and sharing the life lessons that I learned almost everyday; to inspire people to look beyond the tragedy and destruction, and think about the incredible impact Katrina had on the lives of the thousands of volunteers who came from all across the country to help.”
Includes 60+ photos
Like millions of people across this country, I stood in my living room, looking at the pictures of water rushing through levies and flooded homes in New Orleans with an awe filled despair. Although I was living in Colorado at the time, I had grown up in central Missouri and lived through the Mississippi and Missouri River floods of 1993, and then again in 1995. My stomach twisted at the memories of just how poorly pictures on a television screen convey the reality of what was really happening; how seemingly quiet waters were permanently changing the landscape.
I remembered that once the waters receded, the cornfields we always drove by on the way to my grandma’s house became popular fishing ponds. I remembered small towns that were forced to move, when Franklin, Missouri became New Franklin. And I remembered how as children, my brother and I would hold our breathe as we crossed over the Missouri River bridge, and how small I felt as an adult when the river stretched for two, nearly three miles wide.
I also remembered the morning I was working at a local restaurant, when I heard the news about a major explosion at a Federal building in Oklahoma City, and how the following year, my stomach plummeted as a friend of mine drove those very streets. She drove for block after block, first a half-mile then a mile, pointing to the buildings that had been damaged and windows that had been shattered. The pictures we see on television don’t come anywhere near capturing the magnitude of life and the smallness you feel while paddling a canoe up to your front porch.
I was looking at a picture of a middle aged woman sitting on a bucket in a small john-boat, holding a small dog in her arms and pointing to an invisible house off camera. A guy in a bright yellow life jacket and a short beard was looking toward that same direction, the top of his shoulder twisting as though he were turning the handle of an off-board motor. I saw the weathered look of pitted ash on her face, the muscle worn exhaustion on his and the thought simply popped into my head: I could go down there, find a job, maybe with an insurance company, and help in the recovery effort.
It was early Monday afternoon, mere hours after the storm had passed and I was supposed to be at work, nowhere near a TV or anything that would have brought hurricane Katrina into my life. As it had happened though, it had been 10:00 on Sunday night when my car inexplicable quit working. I had just left my local coffee shop, the Perk, when I turned the key in the ignition and nothing happened. I tried turning the key again, absolutely nothing happened. Then I checked to make sure I had put the car into park, made sure I had not left the lights on, and looked at the side of the steering column to make sure I was turning the key correctly, but still nothing happened.
“God Damnit!” I cursed as I hit the center of the steering wheel with my fist. I jumped out to run back to the now closed coffee shop, hoping that someone I knew had been slow in leaving. Fortunately, my roommate’s brother had hung around past closing time and was able to give my car a jump, then follow me back home in case whatever had gone wrong, happened again.
The worst of my problem though, had very little to do with my car. The worst wasn’t that I had not left the lights on, had not done anything else that should have left the battery drained, or that everything I knew told me that the jump from Robert shouldn’t have been enough to get my car home. I had no clue as to why the car had suddenly just died (although maybe I should have paid more attention to the dim alternator light that had been on for the past few weeks). The worst part wasn’t the malfunctioning car, but had to do with my bosses come Monday morning. That night the bulk of our discussion at the Perk had been about how I wasn’t going to be able to make a planned trip out to D.C. in a couple of weeks because my hypocritical bosses at the bank didn’t think it qualified as personal business.
As far as I was concerned, and any reasonable person would be, personal business should have included anything that you needed to take care of that was not work related, like taking a couple of days to set up a few meetings and fly out to DC to raise funds for a nonprofit I was preparing to kick off. As I was told, however, personal days were for doctor’s appointments and when “unexpected things came up. . .” like your car breaking down at 10:00 on a Sunday night.
As I was beating on the steering wheel, I knew that this wasn’t going to look good. I could just imagine the look on my branch manager’s face when I called her in the morning, claiming that my car wouldn't start, that I was going to have to use at least part of one of my personal days off, and “no, I don’t know exactly how long it’s going to take, but I’ll call and let you know when I figure out what’s wrong with it.” It was exactly what I imagined someone would do if they were mad and simply wanted to throw the bank’s own policies right back in their face, making sure that I had the last word and got my day off.
Even though I knew exactly how things would look from their perspective, at the same time, it made me even angrier with my bosses to think that they would just assume I was lying about my car, that I would be so immature as to concoct this story just to prove a point. But this wasn’t an adolescent tantrum, just very bad timing.
Lying in bed that night, my mind flashing between images of what I would say when the branch manager accused me of lying and what could possibly be wrong with my car, it finally dawned on me that maybe I should have simply paid more attention to the alternator light that had flicked on a few weeks ago, rather than chalking it up to another glitch in a 15-year old car with 174,000 miles on it. The only thing that could possibly be wrong and makes any sense whatsoever would be if the alternator were out. Otherwise, nothing we had done would have done any good. So I came up with a simple plan: I would get up at first light, take out the alternator, catch a ride to the parts store with my roommate Adriaan before he had to leave for work at 7:30, put the new one in, and I could easily be at work by 10:00 am. For someone who was dreading another confrontation with his boss, it was a brilliant plan, that was, until some idiot was dumb enough to confuse the starter for an alternator.
Of course, I’m the idiot who had at least a few minutes of complete, inexcusable and unexplainable stupidity. By the time my eyes were opened enough to realize how stupid I was being, like confusing a coke can attached to the transmission for a small bunt cake near the engine, I had spent an hour trying to piece my starter back together. Then, after the ten minutes it took for me to pull out the right part, I had missed my chance at catching a ride with Adriaan. My choice was to either wait fifteen more minutes for my neighbor to come home, or jump on my bike and haul a 20-pound alternator to the store just over a mile down the road.
That fifteen minute wait turned into just over an hour before he got home, and then he ran out of gas barely 20 feet from his drive. After a walk to the gas station and back, and then a couple more trips on my bike to pick up the right sized sockets that I never seem to have, yet always seem to be buying, the 30-minute job had quickly taken up the entire morning. The day had gone about as badly as it could have without someone actually dying. I had no other choice but to make the call to my boss Lil, “I’m not going to be able to make it in at all today.” That’s also when I finally gave up trying to argue in my head that it had been the worst possible time for this to have happened; just a day or two either way and I wouldn’t have felt like my job was on the line.
I accepted that God had given me a much needed day off from work, time to clear my head a little from the previous day’s frustrations and to go ahead and take care of a couple of other minor repairs that I’d been putting off. It was just a few minutes later, while I was waiting for some sealant to dry, when I saw the picture of a lady sitting in a boat in New Orleans with a small cat or dog cradled in her arm. . .
Although I was in no financial position to volunteer, I figured that I could certainly find a paid position cleaning up, and then working construction when the time came. As quickly as I realized what I could do, my decision was made. There was no debate or mulling it over. This was one of those very rare moments that I recognized at the time as a major turning point in my life. The decision itself, whether I chose to follow God and go, or to simply stay home and keep going on with my day to day life, was going to change the basic course of my life.
That night I called my parents, asking my mom what her gut reaction was to me dropping everything in Colorado and heading down for the Mississippi coast for a few months. It wasn’t that I was questioning the idea myself, but my mom has a pretty reliable gut when it comes to making wild and crazy decisions, and I’ve learned the hard way that there’s never anything wrong with asking for someone’s opinion who is smarter than you. She said it felt like a pretty good thing to do and since I was in a position that I could pretty well drop everything, it made sense. Ten minutes after we hung up she called again, “Your dad says ‘Go For It!’ That’s all. I just thought I should tell you that.”
There is a reason why I dedicated this book to him above anyone else. Whenever I think about making the decision to go down and help, I think about him saying, “Go for it!” and I want to tear up. It’s as if no matter how certain I had already been that I was going to be leaving to help with the relief effort, that he was telling me it was the right thing to do. It was as though every time he has told me that he loves me and is proud of the person I’ve become was poured into that one moment. (Six months ago, my father died very unexpectedly. It was long after I had written these words and I thought hard about rewriting this part of the book, but in the end, the most important thing to remember is that these words were not written in the memory of his death, but in the experience of his life. My first regret in my entire life is that he did not have the chance to read this before he died).
After that second call from my mom, I felt ready to rock and for the next couple of days I walked around with a rolling sense of confidence that I knew exactly what I was going to do, even though I still wasn’t completely certain. The biggest piece I had left to find was a call from my friend Roy, a retired police officer and Vietnam vet who I had met at the Perk just a couple of months before Katrina hit. He was staying with his son, Roy Jr., in a place called Lafayette that I knew was somewhere near the Louisiana coast.
At the time, I didn’t even know if their house was still standing or if their phone lines were even working, but part of what I knew was that my entire trip, or at least the first part of it, hinged on Roy. The last thing that I wanted to do, with all of the mess that I was sure they were having to deal with down there, was to add another person to the homeless population. My goal was to help, not to add to the burden. After leaving him a message on his voicemail Monday night, I waited. Tuesday and Wednesday came, passing without a word. I figured that if nothing else, he had a lot more important things to worry about than giving me a call. With ten minutes left on my lunch break on Thursday afternoon, he called.
At first, Roy tried to dissuade me from coming, telling me that everything down there was a complete disaster, “It’s bad. It’s real bad down here Kendall.” He was saying that I didn’t have a clue about what I would be getting myself into.
“I know Roy,” I told him, “That’s the one thing I know right now, that I have no idea what’s going on and what I’m getting myself into. But I’m coming down.”
The final decision came on Thursday night when he called back to let me know that his son, Roy Jr., had said that it would be okay for me to stay there for a few days while I found something more permanent. On Friday morning I was regrettably forced to quit my job, being told, “We’re sending money, not people.” Shortly after dawn on Saturday, I said goodbye to John at the Perk as I was heading out of town with everything I might need to live on for the next six months.
In fewer than 48 hours, I had found a place to stay, quit my job, had a farewell dinner with my friends, packed up the car that had died on Sunday night and left town. In less than four days, I had first thought about, and then left behind almost my entire life. The articles of incorporation for the Adams-Kennedy Society lay on the corner of my desk, still waiting for that next paycheck so that I would be able to afford the filing fees; my job was gone, not that I was upset over leaving the banking business, but I had hoped for a neater departure; and I was leaving behind an apartment I had moved into less than a month before and one of the best group of friends I’d had in several years.
It had been barely seven months since I had pulled into the parking lot at the Howard Johnson hotel in Colorado Springs, having never visited the town and not knowing a single person there. I had simply overheard one of my friends say something about Colorado, and thought, “that sounds like a good place to go.” Then I moved because I simply needed to get away from home, to get away from the voices of all of the people who had known me my entire life, or at least known me enough that I felt too much pressure to express my own opinions and draw myself out of a shell I had let them paint me into.
I was in Colorado because I needed to discover myself, to figure out what I wanted out of life and be free from the pressures of those who thought they knew me. As I was leaving, the one thing that I knew was that I had no idea what to expect, no clue as to just what I was getting myself into, but completely confident that I was heading to where God wanted me to go.
* * * * * * *
A little more than two months passed from the time when I decided to help with the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts until I returned home in the first week of November. With the time it took to drive between Colorado, Missouri, Louisiana and Mississippi, more car repairs, and a few days taken to visit with my family in Missouri, I spent seven weeks helping with relief efforts for both Katrina and then Hurricane Rita; three weeks at a Red Cross shelter in Lafayette, Louisiana and four weeks with a Catholic Charities distribution center in Biloxi, Mississippi.
As I had anticipated, it was a life changing experience that went far beyond having to quit a job I didn’t want, or anything else I had imagined. I grew in courage, faith, my understanding of God, and personal awareness. There are deep-seeded friendships that I maintain to this day. I found a new level of confidence as experiences in the past, like my work with the Central Missouri Food Bank, offered surprising benefits.
The most significant change, though, wasn’t a change at all, but a reminder to myself of a deeper faith I once had, and many of my personal beliefs that I had either forgotten, or had slid into hiding under the pressures of college and daily life. I understand that this sounds vague and what many might consider as trite and cliché, but like most every other volunteer I met in Louisiana and Mississippi, life changing experiences happened every day that I was open to them, and I learned more life lessons than I knew were even out there to be learned. That is why I started writing the journal that eventually became this book. Everyday I met so many people and experienced so many things that it was worth loosing an hour of sleep each night to frantically type as much as I could remember, and what I never wanted to forget.
This book began as a 30-page journal that I was posting on a website for family and friends back in Colorado and Missouri so they could keep up with what I was doing. But when I returned to Colorado in November, the questions kept pouring in. For one thing, most of my friends didn’t have computers at home and they weren’t able to keep up with the website. For another, when I went back to read what I had written, I even had to admit that it wasn’t very good; just a spattering of notes I had scribbled down as fast as I could before going to bed. And then it seemed like everywhere I went everyone wanted me to tell them about all of my experiences, the variety of people I met, the incredible stories I had heard, the work I did and how it had changed me.
I wasn’t ready to talk about it. I didn’t want to talk about it. Not because it was a horribly tragic experience that I wanted buried in my deep subconscious for some shrink to uncover thirty years from now, nor out of a golden sense of humility that didn’t want the attention and credit for giving up two months of my life. When I finally returned home, I simply didn’t even know what had happened, much less, what to think about it.
I didn’t have any problems remembering the people I met, the conversations we’d had or the events that had transpired, I just didn’t know how I felt about it or how they had affected me. I needed some time to figure out where I was and how to fit back inside my everyday life. The thought that started rolling through my mind was that I was having a hard time fitting the post-Katrina Kendall into my pre-Katrina life.
One of the most valuable lessons I learned was that if we believe that God gives us what we need, then it should follow that what we have is what we need. Unemployed, with very little work coming in through the three temp agencies I had signed on with, I looked at what I had: I had time; time to sit in front of the TV, playing video games I had played through a hundred times; letting my thoughts wander into a void; I had time to write. So I decided to take that time, go back through my scribbled notes, fill in the gaps and build in more detail.
Writing about what had happened, the stories I had heard and how I had felt at the time was more than just a way for me to deflect the questions, it also became a way to sort through and process it all. Thirty pages became forty, then sixty. Along the way I started talking with more and more people about what I was doing. People I didn’t know would come up to me at the coffee shop, intrigued by what I had been spending so much time there working on. Somewhere in the mix of these 30-minute conversations I slowly got the idea that it would be worth putting into a full-length book.
What I’ve written is still about my friends, the ones back home and dozens that I made in Mississippi, but now it’s also about opening a door for everyone else. More than simply sharing my own personal experiences, rather, this book is about bringing to light an aspect of Katrina’s (and Rita’s) aftermath that’s been left in the dark. It’s about the impact that Katrina made on the life of a volunteer and sharing the life lessons that I learned almost everyday; to inspire people to look beyond the tragedy and destruction, and think about the incredible impact Katrina had on the lives of the thousands of volunteers who came from all across the country to help.
Just the fact that so many people volunteered is phenomenal. The thousands more who stayed home and opened their doors to welcome refugees from Louisiana and Mississippi is even more amazing. I know that most people didn’t have an experience as profound as mine, but every person there was touched by an experience that will comfort them for the rest of their life. These people tell the true character of the people of this nation and are an important part of Katrina’s story. The part of the story that is more important, I would argue, than the floodwaters and the destruction brought by the hurricane itself.
In looking back on things, I’m tempted to say that Katrina changed me in ways that went far beyond having to quit a job that I didn’t like and in ways that I could never have imagined, but every time I told someone how much Katrina had changed my life, a particular numbness twisted in my gut. It was the same feeling I remembered from several years back when I told people that I was planning on becoming a priest, something about that word just didn’t sound right.
I came to realize that my experiences didn’t change me, so much as they gave me the perspective to change my life. Last August, I was working at a bank; now, six months later, I’m teaching sixth grade special education. All of my free time last August was going toward forging a non-partisan political action group; now, it’s going toward writing my first book. Last August, I was two days away from buying a house, only some last minute hitches in the financing stopped me from settling down permanently in Colorado Springs; now, I’ll be spending the summer with my parents before moving to Minnesota. During those first days in Louisiana, I was adamant about not even thinking about the prospect of going to graduate school; this August, I will begin working on a Master’s Degree in Pastoral Ministry. The very short of it is that six months ago, there wasn’t even a vague impression of anything that’s important in my life today.
The changes are not as simple as changing jobs and picking up a new hobby. Through all of the life lessons I learned, extraordinary people I met, things I discovered about myself, and some old ones that I was reminded of, Katrina made significant, deep-rooted impacts on my character and what I believe.
Part of that change came from the stories I heard; the lady who was holding on to the door frame and grabbed a bottle of holy water as it floated at eye level through her front door, or touring the different houses Mama Sau had recently lived in, and the apartment complex she was waiting to move into before Katrina hit and where dozens of people had been killed. Some things hit me on a personal level: the confidence the mental health workers showed in me and my resolve to confront the Red Cross and Sherri. There were signs I witnessed: the crucifix and stained glass windows in St. Paul’s that were left untouched, and seeing our prayers actively answered everyday, like needing ice and more volunteers at the Warehouse in Biloxi.
You could say that the changes came from an incredible experience in faith from the moment I quit my job and trusted in God, that He would provide enough money for me to stay down there for as long as He needed me to. But whatever you decide to believe, the bottom line is that when I left my home in Colorado Springs the only thing that I knew was that my life was about to change and I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I was reminded of God.
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