Hurricane transplants consider themselves lucky
Almost every Christmas in their 14-year marriage, Tom and Sally Sagar hosted a huge holiday party.
The Sagars would open their Gardnerville Ranchos home to neighbors and friends who would be treated to platters of food and a Christmas wonderland with elaborate decorations covering every surface.
This year, the Sagars are counting their blessings as survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
They lost everything to the hurricane: The 3,000 square-foot home they built for their retirement in a Gulfport, Miss., suburb and all their belongings except the contents of three suitcases they packed for themselves and Muffy, their 4-pound Chihuahua.
The Sagars consider themselves lucky.
Sitting at their kitchen table in a home in Chichester Estates they’re renting from a fellow parishioner at St. Gall Catholic Church, Tom Sagar said he has mixed feelings.
“I feel guilty and grateful that we survived so well,” he said.
Since they returned to Carson Valley in October, Sally Sagar was able to return to the Legislative Counsel Bureau where she worked for several years. They’ve settled their insurance claims and are ready to close on the sale of what’s left of their house in Mississippi.
“We’re here and we’re making it,” he said. “I feel for all those thousands of other people who didn’t end up this well. The devastation still is unbelievable.”
Dream house ends in nightmare
Tom Sagar had moved to the new house in Diamondhead, Miss., in January to oversee completion of the brick home and work on his passion – landscaping.
Sally Sagar moved to the house – permanently, she thought – three weeks before Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast at the end of August.
“I thought I was going to my dream house. Now, it’s only a dream,” she said.
The Sagars chose to retire in Mississippi to be closer to family.
The Sagars were able to build the house for $203,000. Tom estimates he spent $30,000 on landscaping. The lost contents were valued at $40,000.
Fortunately, the Sagars had flood and content insurance.
When the storm started Aug. 29, the Sagars’ first plan was to evacuate for the Florida coast with his siblings.
“We were going to leave the day before, but something in me just said, ‘I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go.'”
Convincing themselves the storm wouldn’t be that bad, the Sagars unpacked Sunday night and went to bed.
Shelter from the storm
By 6 a.m. Monday, conditions had changed. The power was out and the winds were ferocious.
The Sagars decided to stay with an 84-year-old widow who lived nearby on higher ground.
They packed suitcases for themselves and Muffy, grabbed their medications and tried to get their vehicles out of the driveway.
The water from a flooded bayou was knee-deep by 8 a.m.
“We never panicked,” Tom Sagar said.
Trees snapped in the 140-150-mph winds, but the Sagars were able to drive their vehicles to their neighbor’s house.
“Because of our decision to evacuate to the house of our 84-year-old neighbor who was alone and very reluctant to climb the pull-down stairs to her attic, we were in some way responsible for saving her life,” he said.
They had bottled water, a selection of snacks and a bird’s eye view of what was happening outside.
“We watched whitecaps going through the neighborhood and trees falling,” Sally Sagar said.
Furniture and household items floated around downstairs.
By 5 p.m., the water – which reached a height 7 feet – began to recede.
That was not the case at the Sagars where the level reached 13 feet.
Their neighbor spent the night in her house, but the Sagars elected to stay at one of three churches that offered shelter.
The first night, the Sagars made beds out of chairs; the second night, Sally Sagar and Muffy slept outside on an air mattress.
“I slept under the stars,” she said. “There was the most beautiful meteor shower.”
An act of God
The Sagars didn’t see their home until two days later.
Again, they didn’t panic.
“Sally and I haven’t broken down on this at all,” Tom Sagar said. “It’s a shock, but we had basically psyched ourselves up. We told ourselves if anything happened – if the hurricane came in – it’s the will of God.”
“We were kind of prepared for it, having seen what happened at our neighbor’s house,” Sally Sagar said.
From the outside, the house didn’t look too damaged. The front door and windows were blown out, but the brick facade and the roof were intact.
“Everything was a mess inside,” she said. “Chairs were entangled in the chandelier. My grandmother’s china buffet – it was well over 100 years old – was totally destroyed.
“I thought, ‘Well, we lost everything.’ I was 98 percent right,” she said.
Items that weren’t totally destroyed by the force of the storm soon fell victim to mold and water damage.
After a few days at the Baptist church shelter, Sally Sagar took Muffy to a condominium they rented in Ft. Walton Beach, Fla.
“I didn’t want to leave the shelter,” Tom Sagar said. “I had become very friendly with the deacons and the staff. With my management background, I felt like I was making a contribution to how things were running there.”
The Sagars stayed for a week in Florida, then rented a condominium in Gulf Shores, Ala., for two months.
It took a month to inventory their losses Tom lost most of his files and his computer to the flood. He spent days drying out paper records that he could recover.
After the flood, crews were patrolling neighborhoods offering to help residents clean up.
The Sagars contracted with a 21-year-old man who was referred by a neighbor.
It didn’t take long for their house, furniture and possessions to be reduced to a 6-foot-high pile stacked across the front of their property.
Tom Sagar said people occasionally came by asking if they could scavenge the debris for useable items.
He gave away a stove and set of dishes to a destitute family.
“The only thing I asked of them was that they not re-sell it,” he said. “They were going to take the refrigerator, but when they opened it, it was full of moldy food and just not useable.”
A warm welcome in Nevada
The Sagars decided they didn’t want to rebuild in the area.
“We met people who have rebuilt two or three times,” Tom Sagar said. “We knew we didn’t want to do that.”
Sally Sagar was rehired by the Legislative Counsel Bureau, so the couple decided to return to Nevada.
That’s when the congregation of St. Gall became involved.
The Sagars learned that parishioner Roselyn Didier had a house available in Chichester Estates.
Parishioners donated enough linens, kitchen items and furniture to almost completely stock the three-bedroom, two-bath house.
“When we got here, all we had was our luggage,” Sally Sagar said. “They thought of everything, from the flower arrangements to the coffee maker.”
What the Sagars learned from their ordeal is to be prepared.
“You need to keep those little white papers handy,” he said of insurance records and documents like birth certificates and financial records.
Sagar said the hurricane made him think about how people react to disaster.
“It’s a shame on our government,” he said of the response. “People need to ask themselves before something like this happens, ‘What would I do? Who would be there to support me?’
“What if there was an earthquake that totally cut off Carson Valley, Carson City and Reno? Who would step up? Who’s going to get things moving?”
Sagar said the churches took the lead in Hurricane Katrina relief.
“The churches were there day after day after day,” he said. “If this is the case – if we do have a major crisis – maybe the recovery is through the churches.”
Tom Sagar went back to Mississippi around Thanksgiving and paid a visit to the Baptist church where he and Sally spent those first few days.
In the entryway stood the Sagars’ 10-foot pre-lit tree – slightly damaged by Katrina – that they gave to the church.
It was decorated with ornaments they managed to salvage from their extensive collection.
“We had invited church members to come by and pick through our ornaments before we left,” he said. “They gave some away to families who lost everything and there were the others on our old tree.”
On a bookshelf at the Sagars’ house in Gardnerville is a bag of new Christmas decorations. A beautiful wreath on the front door greets visitors.
“We’re starting over,” Tom Sagar said.
The Sagars are not sure what’s next. For now, they’re happy to be high and dry in Nevada.
“People we know and complete strangers opened their hearts to us,” Sally Sagar said.
“Sometimes we reminisce about the lost stuff, but everything we lost was material We’ve got ourselves, our Muffy and our memories.”