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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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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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Keep the faith.. Continue to pursue your nursing career.. You will be a great nurse one day.. The healthcare world needs caring, loving people like yourself.. Keep the chin up and I know things will be looking brighter your way..

Liz, I admire your strength and courage. I know that one day your dream of becomming a nurse will be a reality, and help make the world a better place. Never give up your dream, and stay strong.

You're a determined, strong, brave woman and I know you'll reach your educational goal eventually. Us cancer survivors have the grit to get through anything because fighting the disease (my cancer is breast cancer) helps reposition your life.

Taking things one day at a time is the most important lesson I've learned from cancer, BUT having reasonable goals (be they education, career, or whatever), help get through each day. Just remember, you'll have a whole team of people rooting for you from now on - your fellow cancer survivors AND MSNBC.com readers :)....

One day at a time....

i don't think anyone could not admire this lady....our hearts are with you!!!

Thank you MSNBC for helping ALL of us take one step at a time to get our lives back together. But this latest edition is so important to her recovery and to all that read it.This is the reason I try not to get depressed and complain about small things. My life as I knew it before Katrina is totally gone but Liz is a very good reminder to remember what we can do and what is here for us now.

Liz, Like you I lost it all in Katrina, only i was in Chalmette. I was also in school studying medical billing and coding, school went under too! I'm 55 now and it will take a while to finish school. Keep pluggin away at it girlfriend! No storm can keep a hardheaded woman down!

Hi Liz, Hang in there. It just takes the "stick to it'iveness" attitude to get through all of this. You can do it!! I'm a single mother of 3 grown children. A former Unit Secretary in a Hospital and can totally relate. I'm now 47, 2 1/2 years out of Nursing School and am the Charge Nurse in a Trauma Center OR. My dreams have finally come true. All of those belongings were just that-belongings. Your education and Degree means so much more...When you complete school, you will be able to buy just about anything to replace all of those posessions and then some! You might even be able to go on a vacation or two. Imagine that...You can do it. You are on the HOME STRETCH. Great Luck to you and your future. It WILL be brighter.

Melissa and I are so proud we got to meet you at Beulah Camp in Excel, Alabama. You are terrific person and great mom. We know that you can get thru all of these tough times. God will help you and we will continue to pray for you each day.

I will add you to my special list of those I send prayers and all good thought to.....I too am a cancer survivor (ovarian) and know you will have many pulling for you.


Liz, It is so good to see and hear you again. I am glad you are continuing looking up, or as some say
one day at a time. You are a joy to be around and
I enjoyed my time their with you while your roof was
being put on. I thank God you are working to reach your goals that was set before Katrina. You are in our
prayers. The Excel Church of Nazarene will always be a home for you. God Bless you

Great article MOM!!! We (Adam, Jen and the boys)are really proud of you and we love you very much. Keep in mind just like when you were diagnosed with cancer we will be right there by your side to help you get pass this river no matter how deep it gets! "cause when it comes down to it, all we have is each other! We'll be there soon to help you paint when the sheetrocker is done (anybody out there wanna help?)

Love you lots
your son and daugter-in-law
Adam and Jen

I am so proud of you and excited to one day soon be your daughter-in-law!! You are so strong and can get through anything cancer, katrina no river is to deep for you! I love you and I'm here for you any time you need me day or night chemo or katrina!


I am with you....a cancer survivor and a believer in the human spirit - not the god spirit and I am alive after 11 years....I see that river....and the banks on the other side....you will become a nurse and you have so much to live for .. you go girl !!!!

You are wonderful and you will make it


You have the inner strength which will help you overcome the obstacles. I was moved by your story and know there is something so much greater at work in your life, beyond anything ever imagined. The love of this higher power works for the good of all. You will experience this love in untold ways.

I'm 48 and just finished nursing school in May of 2005.You can do this. Take one day at a time, believe and have faith. In 2005 my son had a collision with a semi,my husband went on disability. Sometimes life has a habit of throwing us curve balls. I encourage you to continue jumping the hurtles and to run the race. I have faith that God did not bring you this far for you to quit. I will be praying for you. I know you can do this.

You go, girl! Being from Mississippi (all my family is still spread out along the southern half and fighting FEMA) as well as a cancer survivor (10 years now), I am having the time of my life reading all your blogs. Thank you, MSNBC, for keeping my friends and family in the spotlight. Liz, if I have to be in a hospital in the future, I want you as my nurse!

I think your positive attitude will keep you going. Our family is praying for your success in obtaining your degree in nursing and I am pretty sure you will be the best nurse a patient will ask for becuase you know how a serious illness affects the human immune system.

As a two time cancer survivor, God has unique ways to bring us closer to HIM. Your journey to become a nurse, obsticles and all, is a gift to you. Imagine how many patients will grow in hope when you share your story. God Bless, Vicki

Best Wishes to get through all you're facing, Liz. And if you ever decide to explore the spiritual route, it is there and waiting....something reliable and rock solid that would not fail you.


Dearest Liz:
I am sending my prayers to you & your brighter days ahead.
My home is nowhere near a river or an ocean but it has been flooded twice in 4 years...I am up 6000 ft altitude, too.
Anything can happen to our lives.
When we are born, there are no guarantees & warranties given our parents.
We all come into this world just that way & we depart that way as well.
No one can foretell what will happen next. Meanwhile, if you can plant some seeds in your soil for flowers to come up & cheer you along, that will be a first spiritual step for you to take.
It is like a love song back to the Creator of the Universe...the Great Mystery.
Stay tuned for that response back to you...
Warmest Best Regards

You know I'm not too good with words, but I just wanted to say, "YOU ROCK!!
Ron and I love you very much!! We probably wouldn't have stayed to rebuild in Waveland if you hadn't.
PS I'm really sorry the couch had to go. I liked it.

I want you to know that there are so many people that have faith in you. you are a very strong and determined person. You can and will achieve all of your goals. Liz, you are one of Gods little angels, you are also being a vessel to many people out there because you are showing them your strength. Giving up is so easy to do, but realize that after reading your story you have giving someone the courage and strength to not give up, but to endure. Continue being strong and being a vessel to so many that will gain the strength after reading your powerful story.
God Bless

Please try and remember... "And this too shall pass" Keep up the spirit.

Dear Liz
I am also a cancer survivor,(colon) in 6 months time I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, I lost my husband,my dog, my mother,father,and my car burned down. But you and I are very rich with the love of our family and friends, please don't allow anything to stop you, we have choises, and we choose to go on,I have no doubt that you will graduate, and go on better and stronger
love you

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