After Hurricane Isaac volunteer stays … for better or worse

By Alex McDaniel/The Clarion-Ledger

PICAYUNE — Disaster brought Shirley Ortego to Mississippi from Seattle in 2006 when she volunteered to help with recovery efforts along the coast after Hurricane Katrina.

Now she and her husband, Billy, are picking up their own pieces after Hurricane Isaac caused unprecedented flooding in Picayune and destroyed almost everything they own.

“We knew it would flood, but we didn’t think it would be that bad,” Shirley, 45, said.

Shirley was so confident the flooding wouldn’t be significant she stayed in the kitchen the night of Aug. 30, preparing chicken marsala for her family

“The water started coming in and I said, ‘I’m gonna finish cooking,’ ” she said. “We ate dinner, and the water got to about an inch and I said, ‘I guess we’ve got to go.’”

Billy, 42, and his wife tried to prepare for the worst by putting sandbags outside their home. But as the water began to fill the Ortegos’ home and others within Picayune’s Westchester neighborhood that night, they knew it was just too much.

Billy had been close to disaster before; in fact, he first met Shirley when she was building and installing new cabinets in his aunt’s home as part of her post-Katrina volunteer work. Now he’s leaning on her again as the family prepares to rebuild their lives.

“He fell apart first; so did my stepson – it hit them hard,” she said. “I think I cried enough when I came down here the first time as a volunteer, when I saw all the damage. I keep telling them it’s just one of those things – Mother Nature showing off.”

The Ortegos were renting the house and planning to take out a loan in November to buy it. But the wrath of Hurricane Isaac and having their lives reduced to rubble in a matter of hours was enough for them to decide to find a home in another part of town.

“So we start a new chapter. We can build a home again,” she said. “We’re fine. The dogs are fine. Our vehicles are fine. We still have our jobs. Everything else is just materials.”

Shirley said she fell in love with Mississippi six years ago and has no intention of leaving a place she now calls home.

“I have been to a lot of states, and I’ve never in my life seen such resilient people,” she said. “When you’re working for people who are devastated by a hurricane, and you’re helping out knowing you’re not getting paid – the gratification of when they hand you a glass of water because that’s the only thing they can hand you and it feels like a pot of gold? There’s no comparison to that.

“But now I’m on the flipped side of the coin.”

Billy and Shirley are staying in a neighbor’s house as they begin to remove debris from their home, saying goodbye to every water-soaked scrap of their lives in the process.

Shirley said she’s staying optimistic because there’s simply no other option.

“We’re all OK,” she said, looking into Billy’s eyes as they filled with tears. “If you want to make God laugh …”

“Tell him your plans,” they said together.

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Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com