Click Play to hear Liz Zimmerman, 47, describe the life she had and loved, as well as her fear for the future.
WAVELAND, Miss. -- If you had to take on both cancer and Hurricane Katrina, which do you think would be the tougher battle? Liz Zimmerman did just that and doesn't hesitate to call the storm the more fearsome of the two evils.
"I never doubted for a moment that I'd beat uterine cancer, but with this you don't know what's going to happen from one minute to the next," says the 47-year-old single mother of two.
"This" is the damage to her single-story brick home in Waveland, a home whose mortgage she has just refinanced in order to buy new furniture that was lost in the flooding. It's also the fact that Katrina wiped out the community college where Zimmerman was studying nursing. And it's the fear of losing her job at the Hancock Medical Center, a part-time secretarial position that provides cash, flexibility to study and, most important, health coverage.
The irony is that the divorcee's life had been looking up when the storm hit.
"It was the first time in my life I was floating along nicely," she recalls. Her cancer was in remission, her son, 30, and daughter, 19, were out of the house and she had promised herself that she'd take up nursing, inspired by the medical staff who took care of her while she was fighting the disease. "Then Katrina came along and kind of put a hink in it."
Not only did the storm render her home uninhabitable, but her school -- the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast campus -- was wiped out.
"I'll be 50 something before I graduate," she remembers telling herself.
Classes were quickly shifted to a former hospital in Gulfport. Dotted with portable rooms and portapotties, the new campus provides Liz with hope but also a much longer commute in a car of dubious reliability.
Car has a death wish
"It's really wanting to die on me," she says of the 1998 Chevy that she’s driving so her daughter can drive her newer car. "I keep talking to it, 'Come on Black Betty, get me to school.'"
Zimmerman still hopes to get her degree in three years, but at times that stretches out in front of her like an eternity.
"You're not really living; you're stringing events together," she says. "Last week I was so depressed, I asked, ‘What is the point of all this effort?’"
But she's better this week.
"I've got to get through school ... then I can take myself out of this picture," she says, suggesting she just might one day leave for higher ground.
For now she’s focused on rebuilding her home, and laughing when she could be crying.
Two days before our visit, on a day when workers were busily replacing sheetrock inside her home, she says she arranged a funeral procession for a new sofa that had been her prize furnishing.
"The neighbors and I did this ritual thing where we took off the legs and kind of hummed as we brought it to the curb," she says. "If we had had a trumpet we'd have had a New Orleans funeral."
The sofa, and its four amputated legs, still sits on Liz’s curb, waiting along with other debris for a trash hauler with no set schedule as far as neighbors can tell. Her wood fence still has her cell phone number and insurance agency name painted on it -- a tactic used by many residents to attract the attention of passing adjusters.
Progress is visible
But while the debris accumulates, progress is being made.
FEMA provided a trailer in her front yard and a power line. Contractors are rebuilding interior walls warped by three feet of water and roof damage from a tree. Floor tiles are going in this time around instead of carpets.
“No mold for this girl,” Zimmerman says of a lesson learned.
She also got help from the Church of Nazarene in Excel, Ala., where she had sought shelter during Katrina. The church bought her a small pop-up trailer before FEMA came through, and then 20 parishioners descended on her home to replace her roof in less than two days. The church also donated a new refrigerator and sheetrock for the interior walls.
That kindness has helped temper the tragedy, but Zimmerman isn't convinced the worst is over. For one, no one in her neighborhood had flood insurance since the sea is a mile away.
"Like everyone else, I'm fighting the insurance people and not getting anywhere with that," she says.
Her greatest fear now is losing her job at the county hospital, which is seeing far fewer patients since so many residents left the area. A nurse at her station mentioned some part-time staff had gotten pink slips, leading Zimmerman to wonder if hers is in the mail.
A strategy to fight on
If that new blow comes, she says she has a strategy to keep going.
"I'm not a spiritual person," she says. "I don't have that to fall back on."
But she does turn to the image of crossing a river for inspiration.
"You've got to get to the other bank," she quotes from her own personal scripture. "Unfortunately this river is pretty deep, but we'll get to the other side. ... A lot of others are in the river with me."
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