10 Lessons Learned When Katrina Bamboozled My Wedding

It’s hard to believe it’s been seven years since my wedding was interrupted by a little thing called Hurricane Katrina. At the time it seemed surreal, and though it wasn’t anything like the wedding we had planned, in many ways it was even better.

Over the last few months I’ve watched other natural disasters attack our country – from heartbreaking wildfires to torrential storms and now the recent destruction of Hurricane Isaac.  So many lives were affected in tragic ways and everyone has a different story.

Watching the coverage I couldn't help but think of the other brides out there that had their special days impacted by a natural disaster.  Of course a wedding seems minor in comparison to so much other destruction, but anyone who has ever been through one knows a wedding is a big deal. In some cases it’s a lifelong dream. And though it may seem selfish, it’s okay to mourn the loss of a dream.

I wanted to share my story and some of the positive lessons I took from the experience. My hope is that it might help other brides in a similar situation realize they're not alone. And most importantly, show that some good things can come out a tragedy after all….

The Wedding Story

To make a long story short, The Woodlands United Methodist Church (TWUMC) threw us an amazing wedding on 36 hours notice. It was unbelievable and I love to tell the story any chance I get. It would take pages to describe every amazine detail, but here's the cliff notes version of what happened...

Katrina hit on August 29, 2005. Our wedding was schedule six days later in New Orleans. We evacuated to The Woodlands, TX (as it happens we were already planning to move there in October of that year, unrelated to Katrina, so we just came a little early).  Things were happening to my beloved city of New Orleans, and I was glued to the TV as my main source of news. It’s funny to think because it was only seven years ago, but this was before smartphones, Facebook and Twitter – in fact most of us could barely text back then!

After a few days of watching people being rescued from rooftops, hearing stories of riots in the Superdome and masses of people waiting in thirst and squalor at the Convention Center it was clear we wouldn’t be returning to New Orleans any time soon. Seeing the coverage of people suffering and destroyed homes was heartbreaking. The images were intense, and it seemed selfish to even think about a wedding during such a tragedy. But soon it became clear that we needed to make some sort of decision. We were in a strange city where other than fellow evacuees we knew very few people, and it was two days before what was supposed to be the big day. What to do? We were trying to figure that out when TWUMC stepped up and decided for us. It was just what we needed.

They heard about our story and the staff sprung into action. They reached out to church members and local businesses in the community, and before long everything single thing was in place including donations of: hair stylist/makeup, tux rental, flowers, photographer, cake, food, decorations, etc. They thought of every detail. After the wedding they threw us a reception, where we had our first dance to Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" just as we had planned all along. They played the wedding slideshow we'd created, and even re-printed the wedding programs with the "new" information. It was unbelievable. If you'd been wandering the church and just happened upon this wedding you would never have guessed it was thrown together at the last minute. It looked and felt, well, real. And it was.

At the end of the night we were shocked to find a limo waiting, and our friends and family sent us off in a tunnel of bubbles. I remember looking back, waving and thinking that whatever we had originally planned would have been nice, but nothing could have been more perfect than what we just experienced.  I knew it was something that would stay with me forever. And it has. It’s a treasured memory that I love to relive. I love that story.

So the whole point is, even if it doesn't feel like it now, there may be some good things to come out of a tragedy after all. Here are a few lessons I learned that have served me well ever since:

10 Lessons Learned When Katrina Bamboozled My Wedding

1). Things Don’t Always Go According To Plan

Simple statement, but what a powerful lesson for newlyweds to learn together. Ryan and I spent a year planning our wedding weekend, painstakingly reviewing every detail (ok, mostly I did the painstaking part but he pitched in plenty and happily took on exhilarating tasks such as addressing envelopes and tying ribbons on wedding favors). We wanted everything to go smoothly and be an enjoyable, fun weekend for our guests. I remember spending hours creating a festive timeline to leave in the welcome baskets so there would no confusion. I’m a pretty laid back person and didn’t feel stressed through most of the wedding planning, but I’m also very organized and took strides to make sure I had everything in place. I thought I had a foolproof plan but I quickly learned that there is no such thing. Someone upstairs may have something else in mind, and our wedding was a good reminder of who is really in charge. How many times have I had the same reminder since? Um, almost daily....

2). Life, Like Marriage, Requires Flexibility

Another great reminder to kick off a marriage in the right direction – flexibility is a key to happiness. So our weekend didn’t go as planned. So a big ole, mean hurricane barreled into the city and wrecked everything. It was obvious we weren’t going back to New Orleans any time soon and we had to be open-minded about our Plan B. Or Plan C or D or E. In the end we ended up with something that wasn’t at all what we originally intended – but in many ways was even better. That’s a transferable lesson, and one I put into practice almost daily, with both big and small things. We had a fun family day at the zoo planned and it poured? Hit the Children’s Museum instead. Looking forward to date night out and one of the kids got sick? Wine on the patio at home instead. Burned dinner (that would be me of course)?  Pizza night! Flexibility is crucial in a relationship, and our wedding experience helped us realize that.

3). Human Nature is Overwhelmingly Good

People genuinely want to help. This was the biggest thing that stood out for me, and still gives me chills whenever I think about it. What happened to us was proof that people truly want to support others in need. People jumped at the chance to donate their time, talent and resources to help a complete stranger. Sure there are examples of a few bad eggs here and there (the burglaries, looting, etc.) but those are the exceptions to the rule. Overall, I truly believe people want to help whenever possible. It restored my faith in humankind.

4). It Takes A Village

Somehow natural disasters have a tendency to bring communities together. Whether they are small towns or major cities, it’s amazing how resilient communities can be in the face of a tragedy. People pull together for a common goal and often come back stronger than ever. The stories from Joplin, MO, after last year's tornado are a testament to that. New Orleans is now thriving almost seven years after Katrina, and Colorado Springs has already come together as a community. There are hundreds of examples of local businesses donating their products or services to evacuees, firefighters, police and pets. Hair salons, hardware stores, restaurants, bars, animal shelters and all types of businesses are helping others. It’s amazing what can be done when people put aside their own agendas and decide to work together to help their community.

5). Attitude is a Choice

You can't control your external circumstances, but you can control how you respond to them. I think about that often and continue to find it oh so true. Life is going to throw you unexpected curves, and how you deal with them determines a lot. This is a hard one to live by on a daily basis, but I firmly believe you can alter your outlook and choose how you respond to adverse situations.

6). Focus on the Big Picture

Sure, details matter. But sometimes we get so bogged down in them we forget what's really important. I remember sitting in a New Orleans bakery two days before we left agonizing over which color pink for the cake flowers. Who knew there were so many choices? I would never have known that one week later I'd be grateful to have a cake at all. The flowers could have been brown and pea-greeen and I would have been happy. Suddenly the little details that seemed important a week didn't matter so much. And when I learned that the baker had stayed up most of the night before to bake the gorgeous cake I was so humbled and grateful. I think of that lesson when the house isn't as clean as I would like, or when my four-year old wants to wear her WonderWoman costume to the grocery store (again). I try to remind myself not to let the little things get to me, and instead focus on the big picture.

7). People Genuinely Want to Share In Others’ Happiness

Initially, I was hesitant to go forward with the wedding and reception at all considering the circumstances. I felt guilty celebrating when there was so much tragedy around us. I worried about offending others or how it might affect them. Many of our guests were evacuees who didn’t even know if they had a home to return to. People were worried about their homes, friends, family members, pets, etc.  I knew they had other, bigger things to worry about and  honestly didn't expect many people to show up. But show up they did! People drove in from hours away. Two of my cousins from out of town caught last minute flights to get here. Some came literally wearing the clothes they evacuated in, but told us they didn't want to miss it. They wanted to be there to celebrate something good after a long and draining week. In fact, several people even thanked us for giving them a little bit of joy again. One person said it was the first time he'd smiled in a week. Another lady thanked the church for restoring her faith in people.

I learned that true friends and family genuinely want the best for each other.  They want to share in each others' celebrations, as well as be there for each other in hard times.

8). It Really Is About the Marriage, Not the Wedding

We've all heard this, but in the midst of planning a wedding it's easy to forget. Many of us get so caught up in the big day that we forget why we're even having it. Weddings are about telling the world you want to spend your life with someone. They are wonderful celebrations given in the spirit of tradition, love, togetherness and hope. It's a day to take vows publicly and share your commitment with the world. Those elements were still there for us. We didn't have the exact details we planned, but we made our vows to each other, at a church in front of family and many of our friends. It was the start of a new life together, one founded on the things that matter to us most.

9). Take It Just In Case

I have my husband to thank that I'm wearing my wedding dress in my wedding pictures. That, and a little bit of luck. You see, the dress wasn't even supposed to be ready until Monday (the day the storm hit) but the bridal shop called the Thursday before and told me it was ready early. I was so excited I picked it up that day. Two days later we were packing our things to evacuate and I left the dress hanging in the closet. Ryan asked if I was going to bring it, and I answered that I didn't want to get it wrinkled so planned to leave it where it would be safe. He nodded, but later said, "You might want to bring it, just in case." I hesitated, because it had been steamed and prepared for the big day. But in the end I agreed and carefully laid it across the suitcases in the back (which were packed for three days, tops. I really thought we'd be back in two).

I was very grateful to have it. I didn't take my shoes or earrings, which were no big deal since a quick trip to the mall found suitable replacements. But in that crazy time it gave me comfort to be able to wear the dress I had picked out months ago, and been through several fittings to get just right. I loved it and although the day would have been no less happy if I'd been wearing a toga, I was glad I got to wear the dress that felt like, well, me.

Which is probably why to this very day I over pack. My husband can put all his stuff in a small, roll-on duffel with room to spare, but my giant suitcase is stuffed to the gills. It's a bad habit, but one that has saved me more than once. So if he starts to laugh I just remind him that "you never know what might come up!"

10). For Better or For Worse Is Real

When you start your life together following one of the biggest natural disasters in our country's history, I guess you could consider that more on the "worse" side than the better. And we made that hurdle just fine. I figured if we could get through that we can get through other hurdles as well. And we have. And we'll continue to celebrate the ups and work through the downs together. As a couple. And now as a family. Together. For better or for worse.

And no, we didn't name our firstborn Katrina. Or our second. Or our third. And Lord help us if there's a fourth….

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