The water didn’t pour in through a door or window. It just seemed to force its way in between the siding and foundation. Suddenly, it was knee deep. Sally Stieffel began to worry.
“I started looking around thinking, ‘Can I save it? Can I save it?’” she said. “‘No, the water’s rising too fast.’”
Stieffel and her two teenage daughters, Sarah and Brittany, waded through their rapidly flooding duplex to the carport. Her white minivan was already half submerged. They made it to the driveway and began to swim.
“It was getting to the point if we didn’t find a way out, we wouldn’t get out,” she said.
Hurricane Katrina took everything Stieffel owned that day in August 2005, shifting her into survival mode. Six years later, with the help of friends, family and Habitat for Humanity, she moved into a new house.
Now she gives back. She has helped recently with a Habitat Women Build event near her home, which ends Sunday (). Such events across the Coast help build homes for families.
Stieffel enjoys the simple things — the smell of her gardenias, walking at the beach and volunteering for the organization that helped her. But she hasn’t forgotten the event that uprooted her almost 12 years ago.
Shout from an attic
Stieffel and her daughters found themselves swimming that day in a torrent that had once been their street. They were looking for high ground, a place to weather the storm, when they received a lifeline.
“I remember the three of us swimming together,” she said. “Someone started hollering, ‘Come over here — we’re in the attic.’”
A couple in Stieffel’s neighborhood, looking through an attic vent, had seen the family swimming. Stieffel and her daughters made their way to the house and climbed up. They waited there, with the couple, for hours. The water finally receded. Stieffel doesn’t remember anything about the couple — only that they may have saved her and her daughters’ lives.
The next few months were spent trying to secure basic necessities. A friend whose home wasn’t flooded let Stieffel stay there. Her two daughters moved in with Stieffel’s sister, Chris Cunningham, in Texas. Cunningham described long phone conversations between Texas and Mississippi.
“She was still trying to be their mother,” she said.
All the vehicles in the Stieffels’ neighborhood seemed to have “gone under,” but one man had a truck that was still running.
“It just turned into a community truck,” Stieffel said.
They used the truck to haul supplies from emergency relief centers. Stieffel visited her flooded condo, and decided there wasn’t much worth trying to salvage. A year after the hurricane, she moved in with her parents in Diamondhead.
It was about then Stieffel met Bonnie Miller. The two were working at the same nursing home in Diamondhead. They became friends and started taking fishing trips to Bay St. Louis. They would sit on the seawall, eat tuna sandwiches and drink sodas, hook shrimp for bait and cast for redfish. Miller remembers reeling in a 35-pounder one day. She gave it to Stieffel.
“She’s got the fillet table, the fillet knife and everything,” Miller said.
Miller said long days of fishing helped Stieffel relax after the trauma of the hurricane.
“For somebody to go through an ordeal like she did,” Miller said, “she’s a strong person. A lot of people give up too easy, but Sally’s not like that.”
Around 2009, Stieffel got interested in buying a house through Habitat for Humanity. The organization told her she needed to start contributing “sweat equity” before she’d be approved for a home. Her first day volunteering was at a site near Waveland. She picked up trash for a couple hours, getting “eaten up by gnats,” but felt a sense of satisfaction seeing the lot cleaned up.
She continued volunteering for two years, learning to use basic construction tools. In 2011, she moved into a blue cottage with a big front porch, a little more than a mile from the beach in Bay St. Louis.
“I was thrilled to death when I found out I was going to have a house of my own,” she said.
Stieffel has continued to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. Recently, a roommate — her daughter Sarah’s Australian shepherd, Bella — has been helping her get into shape to help our during this month’s Women Build event.
She takes the dog for walks several times a day. The exercise has helped her lose 25 pounds since January 2016.
“My momentum’s picked up,” she said. “She’s helped me to stay pretty darn active. I’ve tried to wear her out, actually.”
Stieffel is taking care of Bella because her daughter, who is in the Air Force, is stationed in Africa. Cunningham said it was typical of her sister, an “animal lover,” to help.
“She’s got the biggest heart,” she said.
As part of the Women Build event, Habitat for Humanity worked on a house near Stieffel’s in Bay St. Louis.
“It’s for people to have that support system,” said Shanelle LaFontaine, an assistant organizer for the event.
Stieffel has filled the flower beds at her cottage with gardenias, a fragrant symbol of her recovery after years of feeling uprooted. She stood in her front yard recently on a windy day, looking at the flowers.
“Even with this wind,” she said, “you can still smell them.”