HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - "Everyone has a Katrina story. Ours happens to be our wedding story, but everyone has their Katrina story," said Jennifer Jackson while recounting the events that led up to her wedding.
Her husband Todd added, "We used to joke and say it certainly couldn't get any worse than the way it started. So we could only go up from there."
Jennifer and Todd are both from South Mississippi, Tylertown and Poplarville respectively, but were living in upstate New York. They were days away from their big, formal wedding and reception in downtown Hattiesburg when they first heard about a hurricane brewing in the Gulf of Mexico.
Todd said he initially didn't think too much of the storm.
"Just another hurricane," Todd said. "We'd been through many, and obviously Katrina was something different than any of us had seen."
Jennifer said, "It felt like it was going to be different, but still, it was on Monday. It would pass. Again, the weather would be perfect on Saturday in my mind, so all we had to do was make it through the storm. "
As they looked up the forecast, they started to think that Katrina wouldn't be just another storm.
"When you pull up the Weather Channel radar on the computer, and it literally was the size of the Gulf of Mexico. And I remember thinking 'this is different,'" Jennifer said.
"Just the sheer size of the storm," Todd said. "I remember calling Jennifer and saying, 'wow. This is…this is going to be serious."
They boarded their flight from Albany to Jackson, Jennifer still planning on having a wedding, and Todd not so sure it would still happen.
"I remember being on the interstate going south, and we were the only trucks headed south besides the power trucks and military vehicles," Todd said about their trip from Jackson's airport. "Nobody else was heading south. It was kind of like we had lost our minds."
"We had no idea that it was absolutely going to wipe out so much that it did," Jennifer said. "You know, take out power for days. Take out food sources. Just complete chaos. So we did not realize that until we actually got back to Mississippi."
They headed to Tylertown and Jennifer's parents' house first.
"When we got there we were just…we were just overwhelmed. We were overwhelmed," Jennifer said. "I think everybody was in a state of shock. Just trying to pick up the pieces of their life at that point, and here we were trying to decide if we were actually going to have a wedding."
While Jennifer and her family tried to deal with the damage and come up with a plan, Todd headed to Poplarville to check on his family. No power. No cell phone service. No way to communicate.
Jennifer said, "I can remember sitting on this little step at my parent's house, and literally like hands on my head, elbows on my knees, and just thinking 'what do I do? What do I do? Do we cancel? Do we have it? Do we cancel? Do we have it?' And we came up with every reason probably to do both. And I feared that we would never… If we didn't do it now I couldn't, in my brain, couldn't figure out when we would get it in, which sounds ridiculous. But at that point it didn't make sense to me. We were going on a honeymoon. Wedding comes before honeymoon, so we weren't going to cancel the honeymoon."
Jennifer and her parents then went into impromptu wedding planning mode.
First, they needed a venue.
"First thing we said was 'well, where are we going to have it?' There was no AC, so outdoors made the most sense, and luckily there's a beautiful park in Tylertown," Jennifer said. "And we decided to go with that. We literally had to get chainsaws and cut our way into it. Gloves and just you know pulling limbs, pulling trees trying to make our way into it."
Luckily, she brought her wedding dress home on a previous trip from New York. While that meant she had her dress for the wedding, it also meant the dress had to ride out the storm.
"My parents' house...it was severely damaged, and they had water come in," she said. "So my mom actually had to get the dress and continue to move it from room to room to try to keep it dry during the whole Katrina."
"It was an absolute blur," she said. "I remember probably the most working trying to clear the wedding spot. I remember getting dressed in my wedding dress with the window unit that was powered by a generator on our back glassed in porch because that was the only cool room in the house. So I remember getting dressed out there. I remember once I was dressed, that there were mosquito bites all on my arms, but they didn't show up that much later."
"We were supposed to have manicures and pedicures for all the bridesmaids on Saturday morning," Jennifer said. "It's a time you think of being pampered, and you think of it just as this very glamorous time, probably the most glamorous time of your life for most girls. And it was going to be for me as well, but instead you're just working and sweating and you're hungry because there's no food."
Jennifer said once they cleared the park, her uncles and cousins stood in as bridesmaids for a small wedding rehearsal. "Groom was nowhere in sight," she said. And what's a wedding rehearsal without a rehearsal dinner?
"Someone had gone to the church and stood in the Red Cross line and gotten us beef stew dinners. So that's what we had as our rehearsal dinner was the beef stew. I remember thinking 'how did we get here?' And then it was almost beautiful too because it was so simple."
Meanwhile, Todd was both literally and figuratively in the dark in Poplarville with his family.
Jennifer said, "I remember not being able to communicate with Todd. So once Todd and I parted ways so he could go take care of his family, it was all silence. He really didn't know what was going on. Here again, I had my whole family crew on this wedding thing, but he had no idea."
Todd said, "I don't know if I thought this crazy thing was going to happen or not, but we decided, they decided, we were having a wedding, so I needed to find a suit."
Jennifer said, "Todd and I were talking as the ten year anniversary comes around, and he was telling me that he didn't pack his suit because he thought we weren't having the wedding. Ten years later, I think that's the first time I heard that."
Todd's family friend owns Apples Limited in Poplarville, and despite severe damage to the store, the owner went with Todd to find a suit.
"He helped me kind of rummage through all the damage, and luckily, the suits were in a good suit bag. He helped me find a suit, and the next thing we had to do was hem it. So another family friend hemmed the suit for us in one day. I hung out with her family for a few hours while she hemmed the suit."
Of course, there was no power, so she had to do all of the hemming by hand.
"She'd done it with a sewing machine for years," Todd said. "So she was apologizing for how bad it was. You can't tell in any of our wedding pictures. The suit looks just fine."
A Wedding cake and a bride's bouquet were other wedding essentials that got a Katrina twist. Jennifer's flowers were red roses from Walmart, wrapped in athletic tape and covered with her grandmother's handkerchief. The cake had an elaborate journey from Batesville, Miss. to get to the wedding.
"The lady was so busy cooking at that time that the lady who drove up there asked her to do the wedding cake, she said she couldn't," Todd said. "She didn't have time. So the family friend of Jennifer's family washed dishes and cleaned in this lady's bakery while she baked our wedding cake."
Originally, the couple had honeymoon flights booked in New Orleans, but obviously, that was no longer an option. They rebooked their flights from Memphis, and Jennifer's parents drove the couple to the airport after the wedding.
"My parents literally, I mean after, think about all we've done for two days. Physical labor. We're emotional. We're probably more emotionally drained than we are physically drained at this point," Jennifer said. "And my parents literally drove us to Memphis the night after the wedding, which I don't even know how many hours that was, but I know that we were completely tired."
Todd said, "We had made a deposit of $300 for a limousine to carry us from our wedding at the Cultural center in downtown Hattiesburg to New Orleans to stay in a hotel before our flight out. Well, I never got that limo ride, so I at least wanted to call and check if I could get my $300 dollar deposit back. So I called the nice gentleman. Unfortunately that limousine company was based on the coast at that time. And when I ask him if I could get my deposit back, he said 'well seeing how every limousine and charter bus that I own is floating in the Gulf of Mexico even right now today, no buddy I don't have your $300.' And I just remember feeling so silly."
Jennifer said for the first few years after the wedding, she wasn't sure if she had made the right decision and "couldn't believe that my wedding day had come and gone, and it wasn't the glamorous event." 10 years and two children later, she says the wedding itself isn't as important.
"I was very sad for a long time actually," Jennifer said. "Now, you fast forward. Now, we have this beautiful life, beautiful kids, and I realized what's important. And it makes me see the whole wedding as even more beautiful than I realized it was then. I wish I would have appreciated it even more then because I can see it for what it is now. And it's very cool. Very unique. Very memorable. People who don't even know us have heard this story, and they go 'oh you're those people.' It's really…could not make this stuff up."
Todd said, "It's the love of one another and family and a commitment and sacrifice and those things. And our wedding had all of those things. Katrina did a ton of damage, but Katrina could not, could not take away any of those things. So I wouldn't trade it for anything."