By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published August 24, 2006
Tanya Taylor is no stranger to publicity. In her modest home just blocks from the beach, she leafs through a pile of magazines—Time, Newsweek, People—and local and national newspapers. There is a common denominator among the publications—each bears among its pages a photo of Taylor’s terrified family as they were rescued from the roof of their Chevrolet Suburban while storm-surge waters from Hurricane Katrina threatened to sweep them away.
Taylor is a woman with true Southern charm. She hugs strangers when she meets them, her face aglow with a smile. Yet, her friendliness and hospitality at times beguile those who hear the story of survival she has to tell.
For generations Taylor’s family has lived in Bay St. Louis. Her beloved grandmother was the true matriarch of the family, and Taylor said that everything she learned she learned from her. Her grandmother was the first African-American woman in the town to have her own vehicle—she was a teacher, as was Taylor’s mother and Taylor herself. And her grandmother also imparted her own wisdom about hurricanes to her children and grandchildren.
“She would always say that you can’t hide from God. You can run, but you can’t hide,” she said. “She never evacuated for a storm. She had a very strong faith in God and believed you could get prepared for a storm and he would bring you through it.”
Preparations for a hurricane included supplies of water and potted meat and making sure there was an adequate arsenal of batteries in case of power loss.
“You prepare, and you get ready,” she said. “At least you think you are ready. But Katrina kind of fooled us. She sat out there (in the water) for 12 hours. It’s hard to imagine. Who would think with the whole Gulf coastline that it would be coming straight at you like a bull’s-eye?”
Taylor had also been taught to study the water to anticipate a hurricane’s strength.
“When I went down to the beach, the water was as still as it is today—perfectly calm.”
As residents of a Gulf Coast town, Taylor said that they are used to hurricane and storm warnings and that it almost becomes second nature.
“Life is just so busy, you almost look forward to hunkering down with your family, without electricity and phones, and letting God do His work,” she said. “It’s a time that life quiets a little and slows down.”
But of course, Hurricane Katrina was anything but quiet and left echoes in the small town of Bay St. Louis that will be evident for decades.
As the storm rolled in, Taylor fed her kids, washed their hair and got everyone settled in to the master bedroom. As the winds picked up, Taylor and her neighbor spoke by telephone, telling each other of the damage on the other’s property.
“She’d call and say ‘oh, you lost that tree in your front yard.’ And I’d tell her ‘oh, part of your siding has blown off.’ But at 3 a.m. we still had phones.”
Within the hour though, things changed drastically when her neighbor called again and said water was coming into her house. Taylor’s husband, Dave, got out of bed and immediately stepped into water.
“It was chaos,” Taylor recalled. “All of a sudden, Dave started yelling, ‘Get up! Get up!’ Everyone was in their pajamas and we got into the Suburban to try to beat the water.”
The water continued to rise as the Taylor family tried to make their way through the rapidly flooding streets.
“We drove through that water for almost two miles,” Taylor said. “My husband said to me, ‘I’ve never heard you talking to God like you did.’ I just kept saying, ‘Lord have mercy on us.’ Dave said he was thinking ‘she’s talking to God, and we’re going to die.’”
They turned a corner and came upon a makeshift civil defense unit. It was there that they hit a dip in the road and began spinning in the current. Water started pouring into the SUV and the family, led by Dave and their 16-year-old son, began to climb onto the top of the truck, praying for help.
Members of the civil defense unit managed to make their way to the family, supplying them with life vests and roping them to safety. It was at that moment that a rookie photographer snapped the photograph that would grace several magazine covers.
The Taylors were safe but were soon forced to deal with reality. Their house had flooded with nearly three and a half feet of water, and they had lost all of their furniture and many of their belongings. For nearly a year they would be forced to live together in a small trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And Taylor’s children, especially her twin eight-year-old girls, began suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
Bit by bit they have put their home—and their lives—back together, learning lessons along the way.
Taylor said that it’s been difficult to have to ask for help, but she has learned the value of reaching out to others.
“Once I learned to accept the help from other people, it’s been a blessing,” she said.
Recently, she accepted the help from a group of 29 teens and their chaperones from St. Brigid Church in Alpharetta. In late July, the group came by bus along with their youth leaders and Father Kevin Peek. They were connected to Taylor through an agency that called her and said there was a group coming that only wanted to paint.
“I thought there are so many other people who need so much more. I felt bad to use them just to paint,” she said. “But God is always teaching a lesson.”
As she looks around her sunny yellow living room, she smiles.
“I really underestimated the power of paint. Every time I walk into this room, it makes me smile.”
Taylor’s living room is framed by her still-destroyed kitchen. The family moved back into the house on July 16. While there is a lot of work to be done, Taylor is grateful for the baby steps that have occurred, including the painting.
“I needed something to hug me, and this color just hugs me.”
As a former teacher, Taylor said she enjoyed getting to know the teens. She cried as their bus pulled away and headed back to Georgia.
“When they left, a piece of my heart went with them. But it feels more like home here now, rather than a project.”
Father Peek, who is the chaplain at Blessed Trinity High School in Roswell, said that the teens were also touched by their time with Taylor.
“She was so humble, so ready to see what direction God would take her in. She was ready to be molded,” he said. “I know it was hard for her, allowing her control to be relinquished.”
“When we drove away, I think all of the kids had a better grip on how blessed we are,” Father Peek added. “They got to leave knowing that they made a difference.”
Taylor smiles again, as she holds the bandana Father Peek wore while working on her house. The priest threw it out the bus window to her as the group left.
“It’s unreal what strangers would do to help others,” she said. “I’m still learning my lessons, but God is restoring my faith in mankind.”