After the storm
August 23, 2006
Hurricane Katrina took his home, his possessions, his business. But it couldn’t steal Derek Zimmerman’s resolve.Such was evident by the way Zimmerman played volleyball last Labor Day at the MotherLode Classic in Aspen, the largest and most prestigious pro-am in the country.A week after the first levee broke only a mile from his home in the Lakeview district of New Orleans, Zimmerman and partner Skyler Davis found themselves in the final of the men’s open division.And, after four grueling games, it was Zimmerman who delivered the win – taking a perfect set from Davis and rocketing an unblockable shot into the sand on the other side of the net.When the ball touched down, all of the emotions Zimmerman had bottled up for days were flushed out with one long scream. There were tears of joy, of sadness and of gratefulness.Zimmerman didn’t know where he was headed after the tournament, but he had some money to get there. Locals had raised $1,000 in donations throughout the weekend to go with his $1,500 prize check.
A year later, Zimmerman is excited to return to Aspen and defend his title. It’s the site of his proudest moment as a volleyball player. But, more important, it’s the place where he came to escape the wreckage of the storm, and where he came to grips with starting over.There have been some humbling moments, for sure, during the last 12 months. Times like the day he returned to New Orleans and had to kick in the door of his house, only to find nearly all of his possessions ruined. Times when he didn’t know where his next dollar was coming from. Since leaving Aspen, Zimmerman has bounced around from Dallas to New Orleans, then back to Dallas, then Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for a few weeks, before finally landing in Baton Rouge, La., four months ago.The home he owned in New Orleans was in the name of his ex-girlfriend, but Zimmerman is still in a fight with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to receive money for all the possessions he lost.”You pretty much just chalk it up as a complete loss,” he said. “I haven’t seen a penny from FEMA. The most money that I’ve gotten is the donations from the people in Aspen. … I never really got to thank anyone for that, which is why I’m excited to come back.”Considering the dire circumstances, Zimmerman – a former regular on the Association of Volleyball Professionals beach tour – admitted he hasn’t played much volleyball this past year. Aside from everything else, he’s been bothered by two bad knees, and is scheduled for surgery after the tournament.In New Orleans Zimmerman ran a successful granite and marble home-improvement business. After staying with Davis at his home in Dallas for a month, he returned to the Big Easy to see if the business could be salvaged.
“I was there for about three weeks just tying up some loose ends,” he said. “But there really wasn’t much else for me to do.”He moved back into an apartment in Dallas to find some steady work, before an opportunity came up in Fort Lauderdale. After a few weeks, Zimmerman decided Florida wasn’t the place for him and returned to Texas. He then had another job offer come up in New Orleans, again working for a marble and granite shop. Zimmerman’s girlfriend was already planning to transfer to Baton Rouge, located about 80 miles west of New Orleans. Four days before he was about to start working again in New Orleans, Zimmerman got another call, this one from a marble and granite shop in Baton Rouge.The owner wanted to know if he wanted to manage his store.Everything just seemed to be pointing in one direction, Zimmerman said. He noted that he is forever indebted to his playing partner Davis – whom he calls “Dale” – for the place to crash in Dallas. But the city wasn’t one where he saw himself settling down.Like so many displaced Katrina survivors, he missed the uniqueness of his home state.
“I’m from the swamp,” Zimmerman said. “Dallas was just such a big city. I didn’t know anyone there. In the end, everything worked out for the best. … My girlfriend told me about the transfer, and asked me if I wanted to go back. I said, ‘Yeah, I do. I miss it.’ …”And who’s to say that phone call four days before I was going to move to New Orleans wasn’t planned? It’s worked out really well.”Uplifting words from a man who nearly scraped the bottom. Even at his lowest point, Zimmerman said he never began to feel sorry for himself. There was some anger, some frustration, some sadness that New Orleans will never be the same again. “But that’s life,” he said. “All of this, that’s what life is about. You get kicked in the shins, you walk on and you have some fun.”He recounted a story of how one of his friends in Baton Rouge recently had his house broken into twice in three days. Zimmerman said he found his friend alone in his house with nothing, wallowing in self-pity.”I told him, ‘You know what, go take a credit card, go buy a new TV, and put a bigger dead bolt in the door,'” Zimmerman said. “Sometimes there’s nothing you can do but start over.” Nate Peterson’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
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