Survivors from Hurricanes Andrew, Charley and Ivan offer this advice to the devastated victims of Hurricane Katrina: Reach out to others, help them and be sure to let them help you.
Until Katrina, Hurricane Andrew held the title as America's most expensive natural disaster, causing $25 billion worth of damage when it barreled through Florida and Louisiana in August 1992.
The city of Homestead, Fla., where Charles Smith had been renting a home for 20 years, was hit pretty hard. And so was his house.
"We lost some roofing, and after that there was a lot of water damage," he said. "We couldn't go back. Instead of being repaired, that housing complex would later be condemned."
Smith, his wife and their 3-year-old daughter moved around to a couple of places in the area, getting assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Smith saw so much destruction, he decided to join Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that builds housing.
"I wanted to do something to help," he says.
It may sound incredible that someone in Smith's circumstances would decide to become a volunteer, but Dr. Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles-based psychologist, says he chose to the best possible thing for himself.
"In the midst of tragedy and destruction, volunteering gives you a sense of purpose and keeps you busy, which distracts you from your own situation," he says. "Victims often decide to help others, to do something positive in a world that's been turned upside down."
Habitat for Humanity turned Smith's life right-side up. After a couple of weekends of volunteering, he decided to fill out an application for a home. It was accepted, and Smith is now a proud homeowner in South Miami Heights.
And last year, Smith became the director of Miami's two locations of Habitat ReStore, which sells donated building materials, tools, and appliances to the public at discounted prices, with the profits financing Miami Habitat's building efforts.
"For me, the hurricane was like a new beginning," he says. "I went from volunteer to homeowner to director."
Return to Normalcy
When Hurricane Charley raged through Charlotte County, Fla., on Aug. 13, 2004, Joanna Gournault and her family watched the storm at her sister's house, which didn't sustain any damage. When they returned home to Harbour Heights, Fla., however, it was quite a different story.
"The whole back was blown off," says Gournault of the house that she had lived in for 16 years, and had just spent $75,000 renovating.
The insurance company put up the Gournaults in Bradenton, Fla., which was an hour and 40 minutes drive by car. Gournault's husband only spent a week there because he felt he was too far away from his towing business, which was getting a lot of work because of the hurricane.
Soon, the whole family moved into a trailer in their driveway, where they lived from August through April while their house was being rebuilt.
Naturally, there was a lot of friction inside that small trailer, with four people -- Gournault, her husband and their two younger daughters, ages 3 and 13 -- living in such close quarters.
But Gournault preferred the cramped living to the first weeks after Charley. Then, she was forced to send her youngest daughter, sick with stomach problems and impetigo, to a hospital in Tampa, where her husband's ex-wife lives, because the Punta Gorda, Fla., hospitals still were overwhelmed.
Somehow, Gournault got through it.
"I've always been a very optimistic person. I never gave up my faith," she says. "You have to be there for your children."
Her decision to give herself and her family as close to a "normal life" as possible is something all hurricane victims should strive for, Butterworth says.
"You have to go for familiar things," he says. "That's the psychological way of putting one foot in front of the other. You try to find the pieces of your life that are still remaining."
That's why the situation for many of Katrina's victims is so worrisome, Butterworth adds.
"We're dealing with the problem of the new American refugees. They don't have anything to go back to," he says. "You have to try to find some points of stability for them."
Ask for the Help You Need
Denise Dorman was eight-and-a-half months pregnant when Hurricane Ivan hit her house in Shalimar, Fla., on Sept. 15, 2004.
"I can't even begin to explain to you how terrifying it was," she says. "It was night, so we couldn't see what was going on. We could just hear things hitting our house."
The wind had ripped the roof right off their two-story house, although she and her husband, Dave Dorman, didn't know it at the time. Hunkered down in the living room on the first floor, they used water coolers for buckets as water poured through a hole in the ceiling, unaware how much bigger the problem really was.
They wouldn't be able to live in the house again until four months -- and $61,000 -- later.
The Dormans were fortunate because Denise's parents had just bought a home nearby in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Ivan hadn't harmed even a shingle on that house, so the Dormans moved right in and stayed until the middle of January.
If her parents hadn't bought their retirement home, the Dormans would have had to head up to Denise's hometown in Illinois and stay with them there, she says.
Although fortunate to have a place to stay -- especially since FEMA had only given them $400 for lodging -- the Dormans still were overcome with anxiety at the prospect of rebuilding their home with their first child on the way. They quickly discovered the old cliché that laughter is the best medicine, and they spent hours watching "The Daily Show," Comedy Central and the "Seinfeld" DVD box set.
"Once the baby arrived, our attention completely shifted," Denise said.
Instead of worrying about their house, they focused on the excitement of new parenthood.
But repair costs were skyrocketing, particularly with their contractor dragging his feet. The Dormans both are self-employed -- she has a copywriting business called Write Brain Media and he's an artist. They got $28,000 from home insurance, and then they had to drain their savings account and get creative for the rest.
"We were desperate," she says.
One of Dave's artist friends, Steve Smith, set up a Web site to raise money for them. He asked their other friends in the artist community to donate artwork to be sold on the site, with all proceeds going to the Dormans.
In coming up with that final $3,000, Denise learned a lesson she wants to pass along to all hurricane victims.
"Don't be ashamed to reach out to anyone you can for help," she says. "Don't put your pride before your needs."
The Dormans were extremely lucky -- lucky that not only that they had friends and family members of means who were able to provide them with assistance, but lucky that they were willing to ask for and accept help. For those in need who find it difficult to ask for help even when they're in dire straits, Butterworth offers this advice.
"If you have trouble asking for help, you have to make a deal with yourself," he says. "What you need right now is a helping hand, and you will repay it when you can -- not necessarily monetarily. It could be by doing something to help that person out in some way."
Build a Sense of Community
The people who help you the most might not be your friends or your family, but your neighbors. Both Charles Smith and Joanna Gournault said what helped them cope was the sense of community and camaraderie they felt with their neighbors. They both reached out to the people on their block and saw them reach right back, with the reciprocity getting them through the trying time.
"The community came together," Smith recalls. "One house at a time, we just made sure that everyone was taken care of."
"If someone went out to search for food, and they found a bag, they would share it with the other people that live on the block," he adds.
The day before Hurricane Charley struck, Gournault had received a delivery of $1,500 worth of meat -- a six-month supply she had ordered from a company in Colorado because she doesn't like the meat in Florida. Without her neighbors' help, it was all going to spoil.
"One of our neighbors had a refrigerator attached to a generator, so we stored what we could with them," she says. "What we couldn't, we cooked and ate with them."
Gournault and her husband helped clean another neighbor's yard. In return, those neighbors made them coffee every morning while they worked.
"The more I helped everybody else, the more at ease I was," she says. "More or less, everybody came together."
"What I would tell people is to try to focus on others, rather than themselves," she adds.
But when thinking about Hurricane Katrina victims, Gournault, who now gets anxiety attacks when hurricanes approach her area in Florida, chokes up.
"God bless those poor people," she said. "God knows they need it more than we did."