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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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This project is evolving. Our daily dispatches coverage has been retired. Click here to see what happened in the area between mid October and January 1, 2006.

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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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Jack & Gwen send you their love and prayers today and always. It's takes faith in a higher power to overcome all of the adversity that this life throws our way. Hang in there Liz, were here for you.

I have had this thought since I met you when we were working on your house. You are so eager to pay back something that you have received since the storm - but I truly feel that your way will be to "pay it forward" when you get your nursing degree and are able to help other people survive cancer. You are so strong and have such a friendly and caring spirit. I know you will be a GREAT and compassionate nurse.
Keep up your strength and get that degree.
God will bless you.

Hi Liz,

Like you my Mom and sister both lived in Waveland their homes were across the street from one another 2 blocks from the beach. They have lost it all. I have been to Waveland several times since Katrina to try to help my sister dig though the rubble to fined what we can, a dish are anything we can clean. It can be very depressing. All the people in Waveland seem to have an inter strength like no other they are determained to get back. Keep the faith and hang in there.

Dear Friend,
Spirituality doesn't mean religion - your very deep inner strength is your spirituality! All you Katrina survivors are inspirations to the rest of the country. Keep on keepin' on! Best of luck!

Dear Liz,
Your daughter, Lauren, was in my class this semester. After her final, I asked about her plans for the holidays. At the end of our conversation she directed me to your story.

I had more than several students devastated by Katrina. Whenever I had the opportunity to ask how things were going, Lauren always commented with a smile. I remember her telling me that the trailer FEMA left on your property was stolen before you even knew it was for you. She informed me today that you do have shelter and are living on your own property. I'm happy to hear that bit of good news.

Before the students took their exam, I expressed to them that I knew the holidays were going to be difficult for some of them and that they have been on my mind and will continue to be. Lauren and her fellow Katrina survivor classmates have made it through an incredibly difficult semester and they all did it with perseverance. She and the others never complained or made excuses. Lauren can now take the time she deserves to focus on her family and herself.

Lara Davis

Dear Liz,
Last year I found myself feeling sorry for myself in my little struggling, troublesome life up in Ontario, Canada. Then the Southern U.S., Gulf area was hit with Katrina and I, along with many other Canadians, went into a helpless shock watching the trauma unfold on many Americans after the storm. Of course we contributed to the Red Cross, other agencies, and responded in small ways as best we could to help our disadvantaged brothers and sisters to the South (believe it or not, there are many a Canadian who feels a strong attachment to our "fellow Americans"). But overlying all my feelings I thought, "My God, could I survive if my daily life, my home, my community and basically everything I knew was in one moment crushed or disappeared." Then I read a story like yours where you are fighting challenges on many levels. Your recovery may seem slow but to me you are literally a Phoenix from the ashes. It is nothing shy of amazing! There could be no greater an inspiration than to watch people like yourself fight back from the abyss and carry on with pride, dignity and a mission in life. I wish you, and many others God's speed on your road to recovery. I believe spirit and character like yours is what makes families, communities and countries great. I know that I have been humbled and have met humility by observing your actions, and also those of others battling back from Katrina. I will never, ever again complain and whine about my small challenges and have even begun to evaluate how I can conquer greater things, all from a position of a secure, simple daily life. My, when you become a full nurse, and you will, could their be any greater a human spirit to add to any team at a hospital or clinic, a community? I think not.

Dear Liz,

I just wanted to send a note of encouragement. I am a RN and was in Waveland in September to help with the relief effort. When you become a nurse, you will be able to draw on these experiences in ways you cannot even imagine now. Wishing you all the best now and in the future!


am a firefighter here in eastern kentucky all are prays are with you all in this time of need would like too no if we could help all in anyway

Liz, from a fellow nursing student, hang in there. It will all be worth it in the end. You can see what a difference you can make by having experienced the health care system. New Orleans will come back with all its glory, you'll see. Hang in there.

Liz, You became my role model for motherhood when I babysat Adam as a toddler and seen the kindness, joy and love that you both gave and received from his presence in your life. I used what I learned when raising my own children and the relationship between myself and my grown girls is wonderful!! Thank-You. Now as we all rebuild, I use your always positive words in my own recovery from Katrina. Thank-You again!! For someone who claims not to be spiritual, you sure do leave a mark on people that travels with them throughout their life.

Liz, been a few daz but i hope your doin fine

I am glad to know that you are ok. We have been back to Bay St. Louis and Waveland 3 times since the storm. It was God's will for us to move away when we did, as our home was destroyed that we had there also. We have family living with us from Waveland and they do not know which way to turn to build their lives back. Wade's sister and children are with us. They do not know what is to come as they had no flood insurance with a mortgage. Wade's sister has also lost her job where she worked at the naval home in Gulfport. We will keep all of you in our prayers.
Shelly Koenenn

Hi Liz, you know we can make it. Yes, my eyes are filled with tears reading this, just as they were we I saw you a few years ago walking with the survivors in the Relay for Life walk. All we have is each other, no real possesions, but that does not mean we are not wealthy. We are blessed with the riches of friends. Thank you Liz for sharing, and thank everyone who has volunteered and contributed in anyway to help with Hurricane Katrina Reliefs. You have all made this Christmas a special one.

Thanks to all of you who have posted to this thread. I enjoyed doing this interview with the guys from MSNBC, because they care enough to show what it is really like here on the coast. The wonderful words of love and encouragement that I have received from all of you are with me everyday. Thank you all for the love.I hope that one day I will be able to return it tenfold...peace and joy to you all.




I admire that you are still continuing on with your nursing career even though you have to commute a little furthur. Remember that you have come so far as to pursue your career and now all you have to do is finish.
You remind me of my mom because she is also a cancer survivor and a single mother; I can sense that cancer survivors like yourselves have a special strength that no one else has.

Liz i was very impressed with your story someone that has so much courage and faith in all you have accomplished.Im sure things will get easier for you now hearing what you have been thru Good luck to you and cross that deep river that you mentioned you sound like a geat person Jim Austin

Hi Liz:
This is your sister. I just happened to be searching the internet and saw your story. I know we aren't close but I AM glad to read that your fight with the cancer is going well. I'm sorry about your house. I passed by it last time I was down there. Glad to hear things are progressing in that regard. I hope Adam and Lauren are doing good. I'll keep my fingers crossed for your job. I've been in that boat. Good luck to you.

dear Liz,
never give up on your hopes and dreams, and never, ever give up...keep on fighting, and one day your dream of becoming a great registered nurse will come true, keep on fighting our nation needs more fighters like you too

I just want to let you know I've faced both cancer and Katrina too and find Katrina the harder challenge to shake. But I am an outsider, and can't imagine having to go back. I always felt I had more control over my cancer (even after having it 3 times). I went to New Orleans to visit a friend and get away, and wound up running to Lafayette hours after the levy began to breach. I saw the looting and the damage and it was surreal. I felt more powerless there than in the throes of chemo and radiation. Perhaps because I had more help and support there. Someday I will be able to go back and put perspective on this, but you have to live with it day to day. Liz, you are an inspiration, to take it on this way and to keep being reminded of the things that tried to defeat you. You make me feel not alone in seeing the differences between two life threatening circumstances. I wish you much happiness and peace of mind. God Bless.

I too have come up against death itself and wondered how I was going to make it. My first thought after reading your letter was a scripture that I held onto. It is Isaiah 43:2 When thou passest through the waters I will be with thee: and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee, when thou walkest through the fire thou shalt not be burned, neither shall the flame kindle upon thee...I know you said you do not have a faith to fall back on, I too lived my life that way for years. I will be praying for you and know a lot of people wheter they write or not have been moved by your story...God Bless you and your children.

Liz,i hope you get the guidance from God that you need to get you through this tough time.You will find that it will get you through anything.

The Journalism class of Livingston High has a message: Our hearts are with you...Good luck.
P.S. (from Mattie J)
People sometimes say, There is always a happy ending, if it's not happy it's not the end...I hope you find a happy ending to your story soon.

I can't imagine what it has been for you,friends and family.
I pray that you will persevere, and that God will see you thru. Whenever things rough or you feel down just remember this saying "Behind every dark cloud, is a silver linining"

God's blessings and guidance to you and yours. Davia

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