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Blog: When Kelley Met Katrina: Miami Gift Show (Part 1)  

In light of the aftermath in the Deep South as a result of Katrina, I had doubts recently about writing the adventure of my week in Miami when Katrina was just a Category 1 hurricane and passed through the area. Let me begin my story with the fact that it is in no way intended to make light of the storm, this experience took place before anyone knew the full effect of  Katrina or how that name would be chronicled in the history books.  This follows a series of trials, miracles and blessings I experienced.  There are things to make you laugh, maybe even have a tear in your eye, and hopefully leave you inspired in some form or fashion.  I never know what of my writings will touch someone or how, I just get inspired to write what I feel or experience and let the recipients take from it what is intended for them.

Not expecting anyone to be able to absorb the whole thing at once, it is written in chapter form- going through each day's events- to make it an easy read. You can absorb in whatever amount you want at a time.

August 23, 2005:  I Had a Dream

While scientists insist people dream at night, whether you remember them or not, I was convinced that I had not been having dreams for the past couple of years.  I certainly was not remembering any of them if I had been, and that was quite unusual for me.  All that changed some time this year and I slowly began having and remembering vivid dreams in amazing detail.  Remembering how it used to be when I would have dreams, I made sure to tell someone about the dream as soon as possible- just in case.
Sometime late Tuesday night/early Wednesday morning, I had a dream.  I was in a beach-type house on what I presumed to be the Chesapeake Bay.  The house was high on a bluff and I was watching a hurricane roll in.  There were fifty foot swells, crashing with a mighty force right in front of the house.  I was not afraid, although my adrenaline was pulsing,  the only concern in my dream was more for the animals that were in my care at this house. 
The winds were whipping what used to be the boards from docks into dangerous projectiles.  That was when I realized I was standing in front of two glass windows and should cover them up.  I went into another room and found a ping-pong table.  Removing the top, I nailed it up across the large windows.  With the storm’s fury intensifying, I decided to get the animals and myself to safer quarters.  Loading them up into the Jeep, we had only driven about a block- the wind hitting the vehicle with enough force to almost overturn it- when I knew the roads were not any place to be.  I inched the Jeep in reverse back toward the house as the National Guard was rolling up in a tank.  They insisted I get in and leave the animals.  An argument ensued, because I was NOT leaving those animals I loved and was charged with caring for.  Passionately arguing in the middle of a hurricane, I eventually persuaded them to let me bring the animals into the tank and we were off…..  
It was about this time that I woke up, my heart still beating quickly with the heightened emotion and intensity of the dream.  I got up, drank some water and on the way back to bed decided I didn’t want to pick that dream up where I left off!  (That used to be what happened when I’d dream and wake up in the middle of it, as soon as I went back to sleep I would pick it up from the point when I woke up.)  I don’t think it was long before I dozed back off, and picked up the hurricane dream again - but this time from a hotel!  Not too many of those details I remembered when the alarm woke me up a few hours later.  I was just left with the vision of watching the storm from a picture window in a hotel room.  Strange dreams…. But I knew I should share them with someone.
August 24th:  When Are You Leaving For Miami?
Wednesday morning I told a couple of close co-workers about my strange dream.  Laughing it off, I was really just happy to be dreaming and remembering them again.  About mid-morning, my Dad called me at work and said, “When are you leaving for Miami?”
I responded that I left the following day and reminded him I would be there for a week, doing the gift show at the Merchandise Mart.  He said, “Have you been watching the weather lately?”  
“No,” I said, admitting that I had been swept away with getting everything taken care of that needed doing before I left for a week, “why?” I asked.   He said that there was a tropical storm off the Florida coast in the Atlantic, making headway toward Miami and that might affect travel.  That’s when I pulled up The Weather Channel’s website and was introduced to Tropical Storm Katrina.  Dad and I talked about the timetable of the storm making significant landfall, jokingly placing odds on my actually getting in to Miami the following day.

Unfortunately, that planted a seed of doubt in my mind, as I kept returning the TWC’s website every couple of hours, anxiously checking to see how things had changed.  My mind began to wander at times that afternoon and evening, pondering the possible scenarios of being stranded in an airport in Pennsylvania when I was only to have an hour layover.  Then I envisioned flying into the storm and the turbulence that would be associated, among other scary things.    
I had gotten myself worked up into such a frenzy by nightfall when I was finishing packing my suitcase, I actually had a little panic attack- hyperventilating and the whole nine yards.  This is also quite unusual, as I am naturally a very easy-going person and have learned to put my faith in the Lord.  Feeling the stress in my shoulders and neck muscles, noticing how short my breathing had become and definitely recognizing the panicked state, I regained my wits, said a prayer and concentrated on slow, deep breaths and letting the stress and worry go.  About fifteen minutes later, I had calmed my systems back to a normal level and resumed packing.  The realization was that the trip was here, it was time to go… and there was nothing I could do but put my faith in the Lord and trust that everything would be all right arriving in Miami at about the same time as Tropical Storm Katrina.  
While part of me was worried, I have to be honest:  a part of me was exhilarated! Having worked for thirteen years at a local radio station and covered hurricanes from behind the microphone, I always enjoyed the intensity something like that brings to your work. But it was being the voice of calm in an emergency that I think was the best part of covering storms at the radio station … the part that got my blood flowing.  Secretly, for the past three years I had been doing this August show in Miami, I had always wanted to experience what it was like being in a storm there.  Watch what you wish for, huh?
August 25:  When Kelley Met Katrina
The day began way too early, but I had been on edge all night anyway and was sort of relieved that it was time to get up and moving.  At least I could get out any nervous energy by moving around before having to sit still during two flights:  one from Norfolk to Philly, the next from Philly to Miami. Arriving at the airport at 7 A.M., I was glued to the televisions in the terminal showing CNN’s intermittent reports about the tropical storm approaching my day’s destination..  It looked like Katrina would be coming in right behind me, but with hours still to go before arriving, anything could happen.  With the rest of my apprehensions gone, I just concentrated on the positive vision of our plane landing in Miami rather than the worst-case-scenario vision I was stricken with the night before of being stuck in an airport somewhere, unable to get in for who knows how long.
The first leg of my trip went off without a hitch and I saw that there were no delays so far for my noon flight from Philly to Miami.  Having never had a lay-over in the Philly airport, I enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere, sights and sounds.  Since it was about 10 A.M., I figured I’d call in to work and let them know I was, indeed, on my way to meet Katrina in Miami and ask for their continued prayers for safe travel.  Promising to call as soon as I could to let them know I arrived safely in Miami, I hung up the phone and resumed exploring the airport’s shops.  
When I checked back in at my gate an hour later to make sure the flight was still a go, I ran into one of the other manufacturer’s reps/co-exhibitor that I had befriended a couple of years earlier, Terri.  We talked for a while, comparing travel conditions on the way to Philly and then what we had heard about the conditions of Miami when were to get there.  We hung out until it was time to board the plane and I felt good about the trip.  All worries had been put away and I had a sense deep within that I would safely be in Miami by the evening.
Flying is something I really enjoy.  It gives me a totally different perspective on things… beyond just the magnificent view above the clouds and how small everything looks from the air.  The perspective is my mentally stepping back from a situation to see the big picture, then stepping farther back to absorb the bigger picture and finally, if need be, taking a final step back to gain the entire picture.  Flying allows me to do that, I guess physically removing yourself in such a dramatic way from a situation causes you to gain that greater, inspired perspective on things.  
Anyway, I usually like to take pictures of the different cloud formations and other sights while flying.  This time, however, I did not have a camera on-board, so I was left to absorb every detail in my mind.  Fortunately I have a photographic memory, so it is easy to recall going from the white, billowy clouds to thick, heavy gray clouds that hid the earth, disguising your proximity to the ground while making your descent.  I was grateful to see the city of Miami and the runway getting closer as we came out of the shroud of clouds and approached, touching down in the pouring rain.
Terri and I got our luggage and decided to share a cab, since our hotels were not that far apart.  Heading out to the taxi stand, we saw a lady drive up in a brand new cab.  “Oh, what luck!” I thought as we were getting squared away and on the road.  It was not long before I realized we were going to encounter a couple of interesting obstacles:  this lady did not speak very much English and had been a cab driver for only a couple of days, with absolutely no idea where our hotels were!
Being one who can usually interpret and communicate with  people who have various dialects and accents, I concentrated carefully on each of her words as well as the ones I chose to communicate with her.  I wrote the addresses down of each of our hotels- which were only three or four blocks from each other and close to the airport, and watched as she picked up her cell phone and called what was, I guess, a “lifeline” to help her navigate the area roadways and figure out where she was going.  Fortunately, once again, having a photographic memory was about to pay off as I recognized the neighborhood as we were getting closer to the first hotel and guided the taxi driver- in the middle of the intense wind-driven rain- to the first hotel.  
Getting out of the cab, I gave Terri verbal directions on how to get from my hotel to hers, so she could guide the driver on to her destination.  At last!  I was returning to the place I’d call home for a week:  the Blue Lagoon location of the Summerfield Suites by Wyndham!  (Having stayed there last year, I was familiar with the amenities that were close by in surrounding neighborhoods and had befriended some hotel staff members who I looked forward to seeing again.)
By the time I was checked into my room and had called the office and my family- as well as my friends and associates at our sales broker’s office who were monitoring the arrivals of a group of their manufacturers’ reps,  Katrina was definitely making her presence known.  Some time while I was airborne from Philly to Miami, she had been upgraded to Hurricane Katrina and was really kicking things up outside.  The hotel lights had flickered a couple of times and my (hungry) instincts told me I’d better order some delivery food since there was no restaurant in walking distance (in this kind of weather, anyway.)
I leafed through the yellow pages and the few delivery menus in my suite’s kitchen and quickly decided upon Cuban food.  After all, when in Miami …. Might as well enjoy some good food you won’t find as easily  or better anywhere else in the States.  Within a half an hour, I was enjoying an appetizer of grilled shrimp, a Midnight sandwich and fried plantains on the side.  I curled up in front of the television, tuned to local newscasts as Katrina was whipping things around outside, and enjoyed dinner.
Knowing the Summerfield Suites has a social hour from 5-7 Monday through Thursdays, and that many of my co-exhibitors, reps and broker had also booked rooms in the same hotel, I went downstairs to enjoy a glass of wine and wait for any of those friends to arrive in the clubhouse room.  It wasn’t long before Rhonda came along, looking a little bedraggled both from setting up her booth space all day and being lashed by the wind and rain outside.
She joined me and we caught up on things that had happened since we had seen each other last and, of course, talked about Katrina.  Rhonda had not been in a full-on hurricane, so she was rightfully concerned about what was going on and how to respond to such an event.  Since she had just come from the Merchandise Mart where other exhibitor-friends were setting up, I inquired about the conditions there and wondered if everyone had made it in to Miami.  She said that one exhibitor/friend was stuck in the Atlanta airport- his shipment of product and displays for his booth (that usually takes a day and a half to set up) had not even arrived at the Mart- and another exhibitor was stranded in Chicago, both unable to fly in!  She added that the parking lot at the Mart was already beginning to flood and I jokingly said it might be better to take a rowboat the next day to finish setting up.  I thought for a moment about how fortunate I was to have made it in, as I did see a long list of cancelled flights on the boards at the Miami airport when I arrived.
Not long afterward, another good friend, Valerie, came into the clubhouse for what had transformed into a gathering of most of the hotel guests - all of  whom were glued to the television broadcasts about what was happening right outside our doors.  The three of us exchanged hugs and salutations, Valerie and I got some wine and settled in for more good conversations- now combining we three redheads into a cohesive group. Little did I know then, but it was the foundation of great friendships that were to develop further in the next week.
While we were engulfed in animated conversation, partly fueled by the adrenaline rush of the weather outside and the adventures already experienced in travel or setting up the booth space, the lights in the hotel went out at 6:20 and emergency lighting came on.  After the brief but startling event, we continued chatting and laughing at each others’ stories.  While sharing with Rhonda and Valerie about my dream two nights before- and right in the middle of enthusiastically reliving the part about taking care of the animals and arguing with the National Guard- I saw out of the corner of my eye movement outside… it was a black cat, scurrying around in the torrential rain and high gusts of wind, trying to find some shelter or refuge.  I must have just stopped talking as my mouth dropped open and my attention drifted off toward the cat out on the patio, as Valerie jokingly brought me back to the conversation where I left off.  I pointed the black cat out to them and noted how odd it was for it to have appeared just as I was telling them about the animals in my dream and having to take care of them.  (Okay, being an animal lover, I did worry about that black cat- but having common sense I didn’t do anything foolish like try to sneak it into the hotel!)  I finished telling them about the dream and did not see the cat anymore…. Although it crossed my mind frequently the rest of the evening, hoping it was safe.
Not long afterward, one of the broker’s reps, Sue, and her daughter Jen arrived from setting up the booth space at the show venue.  Also sporting the ‘wind-blown’ look, their spirits were good as we all relayed the latest information we had heard about the conditions outside before the power outage.  While we were enjoying each other’s company, I realized my cell phone was still up in my room.  During my foray upstairs to the hotel room for my cell phone and back, I had paused at the window along the stairs long enough to see a coconut fly.  And, no, it’s nothing like a fruit fly!  Aware of the intensity of things going on outside and dangerous exposures around the window, I did not spend very much time at that window as it was a close to trees and other things that could cause possible harm if wind-driven.  But still, I was drawn to it, a fascination as well as respectful attitude.  This was a mighty experience to be a part of!  
Thankfully, each key-card lock on the hotel’s room doors must have had its own little battery back-up, as you could still get into your room with the electricity out.  That is, if you could find your hotel room!  The emergency lighting upstairs was dimming and, without a flashlight, I relied on my training as a firefighter years ago in how to make your way through a building when you cannot see where you are or where you are going.  All my senses were heightened greatly, navigating the ever-darkening, windowless hallways and remembering where my room was.  I found it quite easily but also thought about returning later that night and how I could make it simpler to find- in case we were still without power in the morning.  Looking around the room for something adhesive, my eyes fell on the luggage sticker from the airport.  Ripping it off to allow some of the sticky side to be used, I stuck it to the outside of the door jamb at eye level (or hand-following-the-wall level) and then, as I returned downstairs, also counted the number of lights I saw under doors along the wall during my slow creep back down the hall toward the stairway.
When I returned to the clubhouse room, I let the girls know about the interesting adventure I had getting to and from my room and alerted them to being careful navigating dark hallways.  Being prepared, Rhonda whipped out her handy-dandy flashlight and we all laughed at her thinking ahead for the likelihood that it would come in handy.  We compared notes on the things we had brought in preparation for the storm… a short list, if any list at all for most of us.
After a couple of hours downstairs, still enjoying our conversations –but with no power, half the emergency lighting losing its power as well and what was left of the air conditioned air quickly being replaced by a familiar warm, heavy-with-humidity atmosphere-  I excused myself from the group to go up to my room and change into shorts and a T-shirt, stretch across the bed and watch the storm.  We planned to meet the following morning sometime,  just playing things by ear since we had no idea what we’d wake up to after Katrina was done.  (Just before going upstairs, Rhonda had noticed how the sky was getting brighter and the rain and wind had finally stopped, noting that perhaps the storm was over.  Understanding that she had never weathered a hurricane- and not wanting to cause her any more distress or worry- I kept the fact to myself that it was the eye passing over Miami and that, unfortunately, the worst was on the other side.)
I went upstairs to my hotel room and enjoyed the momentary stillness outside.  What a contrast to the conditions just a little while earlier!  Surveying the damage thus far from my hotel window, I was thankful to not see much other than palm fronds all over the ground.  At the same time, though, I knew it was far from over and was curious to see how the vision of the neighborhood differed the next morning.  
Around 8:30 P.M., with the force of a freight train, the wind and rain resumed with a vengeance.  More powerful than the first round, the second was another series of awesome sights and sounds.  The sky turned a turquoise green during the lightning, the vertical wind-driven rain was now so heavy that it was nearly impossible to see anything beyond the parking lot and what buildings were barely visible silhouettes in the lightning were all dark from the power outage.  I was able to stay awake until around 9:30 enjoying the excitement of the storm, then exhaustion took over and I was sound asleep…. And dreaming again!
August 26th:  The real adventure begins
The next morning, with the sun shining brightly outside and no power inside, I woke up, peeled myself off the bed and immediately headed to the window to survey my surroundings and see what damage had been left in Katrina’s wake.  A tree had been propelled through a section of the iron fence surrounding the hotel, crushing it like an empty soda can.  You could hardly see the pavement in the parking lot for the palm fronds and other leaves that had been strewn everywhere!  Before heading outside to walk around the hotel to take a complete look around, I got myself ready for the day.  What I was not ready for was the realization that, while we still had running water in the hotel- there was no hot water.  Actually, after my room increasingly getting warmer since the night before, the cold shower was sort of refreshing!
When I opened the door to the hallway, I double-checked to ensure my sticky tag was still adhered to the door jamb since it was now pitch black beyond my room and all emergency lighting had expired.  Feeling my way around the hall for the third time, I had my route down pat- except for the baby crib someone had put outside their door!  Fortunately, there was just enough light coming from under the door before I got to the crib to detect and avoid the hazard.  (It seems the only folks who had flashlights were some of the staff… and they did not seem inclined to help the guests maneuver through the dark halls at all!  For me, assistance was not necessary as I was having fun in a way navigating the dark hallways - but it did bother me that other guests were not being helped!) 

When I got downstairs, I nicely mentioned the crib/trip hazard in the third floor hallway to the frazzled person at the front desk.  I came in on the tail end of some very impatient guests who somehow felt the hotel was to blame for the hurricane and resulting power outage and was letting the clerk know in a very unkind manner.  The employee seemed grateful to have someone not only smiling and being understanding about the whole situation- but also to be able to talk to someone who was not “testy from the heat.”  He thanked me, saying that he’d have the crib brought downstairs before someone tripped over it.  I inquired about guests making their way through the hallways, gently suggesting that the staff could be a little more helpful for those who needed it.  I told him to hang in there and try to keep smiling… this would eventually pass.
Heading outside, I walked around the entire hotel looking at downed tree limbs, a couple of cars in the parking lot had close calls with limbs barely missing them.  I noticed one car, pulled halfway up onto the sidewalk in its parking place and figured that person must have come in during the height of the storm. 
When Rhonda, Valerie and I met for breakfast in the clubhouse (with no power, the meal was limited to fruit, bread, packets of honey, peanut butter or jelly, juice and water with what ice they had left- but I was still thankful for something to eat!) The three of us talked about our individual experiences the night before and prepared to head to the Mart.  I jokingly “thanked” Rhonda- she unknowingly planted a thought in my mind that I ended up dreaming about the night before:  from her talking about the parking lot at the Mart starting to flood, I dreamt that the water entered our end of the building and all our merchandise was floating when we arrived to finish setting up that day.  Laughing about it, I said I must really be open to suggestion to have come up with that one!
After breakfast, the three of us set out in the car Valerie rented and headed over to the Mart.  From the moment we left the hotel, there were trees knocked down and across the road for much of the two or three mile trip.  We agreed there must have been a few tornadoes spawned by the hurricane to do the extensive damage we witnessed.  We crept along at a snail’s pace, weaving around downed trees- one time having to make a u-turn because our lanes were impassible and had to get on the other side of the road which also had downed trees, but only blocking half of the two oncoming lanes.  (It was a good thing we were out before most other motorists, except for the crews cutting downed trees and loading them into dump trucks.)

As we were pulling into the Mart’s parking lot, I pointed out a palm tree that was split down the middle- just disintegrated from the inside out- with four slender pieces of bark on the ground the length of the original tree.  Later, I was telling one of my Florida friends who’s seen the damage from all sorts of storms there, who said it sounded like a lightning strike.
As we were going into the Mart, I saw a pile of sandbags near the door closest to our 2400 square foot booth space.  Showing Rhonda and Valerie, I joked that maybe the show folks had the same dream I had about the interior of the building flooding and prepared for it.  We got settled into setting up our individual displays.  As the morning went on, other folks trickled into the our broker’s booth to finish setting up the space because, after all, the show must go on!  Since there were fewer of us than would normally be the case, the spirit of helpfulness was the greatest I have experienced in the four years doing that show.   Because many  manufacturers’ reps could not make it in due to the hurricane, those who did make it pitched in and helped wherever it was needed.  As Sam noted at our Principal Appreciation dinner Sunday night, it was quite heart-warming to see us helping each other out- but what took the cake was seeing “competitors” helping set up the space for others who could not make it in because of the storm.  There was a great sense of purpose and ‘getting the job done” and I was so happy to be a part of that!
By Friday afternoon, our hotel still had not regained power and we were questioning whether we’d be able to ‘tough it’ another night.  The three redheads headed out to scout around for rooms for the broker’s  reps and vendors, trying to find more comfortable accommodations.  Another adventure was ahead of us, as there were only two things we needed from a hotel: 1. that they have power and 2. that they actually have vacancies.  After a lot of driving around, and many hotels later, the reality of just how much of Miami was without power was sinking in.  We returned to the Mart to let our group know our trip had been fruitless.
Sam, our broker, mentioned that he had pull-out sofas in many rooms at his house and that his neighbors were vacationing, Sam and his wife, Ellen, were taking care of the house in their absence- we could caravan up about an hour north of Miami.  It was a much better alternative than another night at the hotel with no power or AC, diminished food-serving capacity and cold showers!  Also, being unsure of just what areas did have power, the idea of trying to find a restaurant anywhere in the area was sounding more and more like the adventure we had earlier trying to find a hotel!  Very thankful to Sam, his wife Ellen and their neighbors, eight of us piled into vehicles that evening and headed up the road toward Boynton Beach, stopping for a most delicious meal at a Thai restaurant on the way.  Things were looking up!
When we got to the houses, we were naturally exhausted- but very thankful!  We split up into two groups of four: half at Sam’s house and the other half at his neighbors.  Ellen got sheets and towels for everyone and cut the water on at the neighbor’s house.  We were all so tired, we decided to get showers in the morning and started making preparations for bed.  I can’t speak for anyone else but I suspect we all share the same sentiment when I say how wonderfully comfortable it was to be in air conditioning again and what a good night’s sleep it was.
August 27th:  You Know You’re In Miami When…..
Saturday morning we all got up extra early since it was the first day of the show and we also had an hour of travel to get to Miami.  I forget who was the first to discover it, but we all had a great laugh:  the night before when Ellen turned on the water at the neighbors’ house, none of us thought about the hot water heater and we all had cold showers - AGAIN!  Seriously, no one was complaining.  I mean, how could we with Sam and his neighbors being so gracious?  It was a funny thing and we all took it in stride.
We got to the Mart and began getting our tasting samples ready for the day.  There was no way to know what type of crowd would be attending – or if the word ‘crowd’ might be an overstatement. The first day of this particular show is usually an onslaught of people- and with our booth space being the only significant specialty food area in a primarily ‘gifty’ type of venue- we have been accustomed to being so crowded most of the time that you can hardly make your way around all the people.  This was going to be different, though, and I think we all sensed it- but, either way, we were ready for the show! (pardon the pun- yes, that last sentence contained one you’ll understand it in a few minutes.)
At ten o’clock when the show opened, there was a nice crowd waiting to come in.  I have learned one thing about Miami:  you just never know what you’ll see- and sometimes it’s more than you expected!  About an hour into the show, a customer came into the booth with his wife and 18-24 month old toddler.  They were casually walking around from one display to another in our little alcove and I did not think anything of it, until they turned around.  The wife had one breast totally hanging out of her shirt as she was walking around, feeding the toddler who was propped upright on her hip.  Now, I am all for the more natural method of feeding your baby- but I guess I am showing my age a little when I mention that a little bit of modesty used to go along with it.  Being a people watcher, I enjoyed catching other people’s reactions to the sight more than watching the mother and toddler.  It was funny to watch others’ eyes pop out of their heads or the double-takes when people were not sure they were seeing what they saw.  
Other than that little bit of excitement, the rest of the day was pretty dead.. hardly anyone in attendance.  Most of our manufacturer’s reps had made it in to Miami by now and we provided great company for each other.  (And the mother/toddler thing created quite a tension-breaking bit of laughter and joking.)

Later That Day:  Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend
Since our hotel was still without power, Sam and Rhonda were making phone calls during breaks in the day trying to find enough rooms for the group.  Rhonda was the first to strike it rich, so to speak.  She is a Diamond member of the Hilton hotel chain and through her efforts and those of a helpful Hilton employee somewhere, she found one room that could house three people comfortably at $299 per night.  As the “tres cabezas rojas” (I learned how to say ‘three redheads’ in Spanish) had already bonded, we had a place to stay for the next few nights.  
Our new ‘home away from home’ was not just a hotel- it was The Conrad in an up-and-coming neighborhood in downtown Miami, blocks away from the MTV Video Music Awards venue (the night before that event would take place.)  I knew this would be a classy place and I felt doubly blessed- a five star hotel for, once we three split the bill, one hundred bucks a night?!?!  Wow!  My only concern was for the other vendors, but Sam came back to the booth almost on the heels of Rhonda’s find with news that he had found rooms at the Wyndham Resort at South Beach for almost everyone else: he and his wife would be making the trek north for another night, but he had made sure that his manufacturers’ reps were in comfortable quarters.  Now everyone had been taken care of for room accommodations and I felt better, we were all okay.
At the conclusion of a sparse first day of the show- we actually had enough time to go over to the Summerfield to check out and come back to the Mart while the show was going on- then we headed over to The Conrad.  What a marvelous place- the people, the ambiance, the hospitality- all of which were especially appreciated because the employees at our previous hotel had been getting more and more irritable and less hospitable as the days without power dragged on.  We got checked in at the Conrad and arrived at our room to find maintenance workers finishing up some job in there.  Returning to the front desk, Carlos apologized and accompanied us to the bar- instructing the server there that our first round was on him.  I think it was the first time we were totally at ease.  I mean, Sam and his neighbor’s houses were beautiful and they were so accommodating to open their homes for us, but we were in a hotel with everything we needed and more, without feeling like we were imposing on anyone.  
After our round of drinks, unwinding with great conversation and laugher, we decided to go to the Conrad’s restaurant and have dinner while our room was being finished.  Again, we discovered nothing but the best:  a gourmet dinner without the gourmet dinner price!   I had broiled scallops with steamed vegetables and a mashed potato tart drizzled with truffle sauce.  A most awesome meal!
Double-checking with Carlos at the front desk, he said our room was ready and the luggage had been delivered.  When we actually got in and were able to take a better look around, I think all our mouths dropped open at the classy décor.  In a way, it really was no surprise as we had made the observation about the rest of this high-rise hotel. Seriously, this entire place looked like it came out of Architectural Digest!

From the atrium at the check-in area on the 25th floor, I saw our rooftop pool on the adjoining building.  Oh, how inviting!  I made up my mind immediately that I was going for a swim as soon as we were settled- and made good on my word, too.  I had this rooftop pool all to myself and could see and hear parties going on in some of the other high-rises.  Not at all envious of the surrounding social events, I had found my Utopia- and some peaceful solitude to think and reflect on the past few days- in this pool.  
Returning to our room, I enjoyed basking in the first HOT shower I’d had in a few days.  Like I mentioned earlier, everything at the Conrad was top notch- right down to the Temple Spa shampoo, conditioner, shower gel and lotion.  Being a person who acknowledges the importance of aromatherapy and puts it to good use, and perhaps also on some level associating the Temple Spa products with the sanctuary of safety at the Conrad amidst hurricane-damaged Miami, I was immediately in love with these products!  They had catchy names, too- a good job on the part of Temple Spa’s marketing folks.  The lotion was called “Peace Be Still,” the conditioner was “In Good Condition” and the shampoo name- my favorite of them all- was “Good Hair Day.”  From the moment I applied the first product, I was swept away on a sea of relaxing fragrance.  I felt pampered just by using each of the Temple Spa amenities.  Hopefully one day I will come across Temple Spa again as they are of the highest quality, have the most alluring fragrance formulas and are the most-beloved products I have ever used.  Oh, if I only knew then how much I’d treasure those hotel-sized bottles of Temple Spa products when I got home, I would have gotten extras!  
August 28th:  And The Award Goes To….
The second day of the show was, again, depressingly slow.  You could actually go bowling down the aisles and not hit anyone most of the time.   But listening to the media and how bad they said the Miami area had been hit (and such a big part of the city still without power) it was not surprising that many folks either thought the show had been cancelled or that they should not even venture down.  By this time, Katrina was churning in the Gulf of Mexico.  We had all been watching The Weather Channel once we were able to again, glued to the developments of the storm we had weathered, concerned for those in her possible path…and watching her grow more and more ominous with each passing report.  
One of my exhibitor-friends, Laura, noted that morning that my hair looked really great.  Kidding, I said, “That’s what a hot shower will do for you!”  But later remembered the Temple Spa “Good Hair Day” shampoo from the Conrad and smiled to myself.  Being the kind of person who likes to share honest compliments, I thought in that moment how I’d like to write to the Temple Spa folks in England and tell them what great products they manufactured- but my adventure was far from over and I knew I would not have time to put those particular thoughts into words for a while.  
The big event of Sunday after the show was not the MTV Video Music Awards, although we did pass the venue on our way to Lincoln Road/South Beach that evening to the De Leo Trattoria where Sam had scheduled our annual Principal Appreciation Dinner.  Each year, our broker hosts this dinner for all the principals and reps who attend the show as a sign of their appreciation for everything we contribute during the year.  The highlight of the evening is the presentation of the Principal of the Year award, complete with engraved plaque, to the principal who has demonstrated a great degree of support, friendship, helpfulness, etc.  Much to my surprise, this year’s award went to me and the company I work for.  I am hardly ever caught speechless- let’s suffice it to say I am glad no “speeches” were expected- I was totally shocked (and humbled.)
Over dinner that night, Sam had mentioned how the news channels were saying that 50 foot swells were possible with Katrina hitting somewhere along the Gulf Coast, most likely New Orleans.  Valerie and I exchanged glances across the table and in that moment I mouthed the words, “my dream…” in both amazement (that it was a particular detail that had been vivid in my mind from the dream I had prior to the trip) but also in a foreboding tone, imagining what devastating effect a 50 ft. swell would have to any part of our country’s coastline.  
When I got back to the Conrad that night, I said another prayer- one of many I had been saying since Katrina left Florida- not for ourselves in Miami or for our situation without power and amenities to improve, but rather for whoever would be in the path of and affected by the (now) Category Three storm that was still growing.  It was to be hitting the New Orleans and surrounding areas by the next morning and I was feeling for everyone in those areas, long before the storm actually hit, because their lives had already been turned upside down just in the process of trying to evacuate or board up their properties in an effort to keep themselves safe.  Then my mind drifted off to all the animals….. the members of so many families who had to be left behind by their loved ones because no shelter takes animals during a hurricane.  I felt a bittersweet understanding of my dream in a way…and cried, just as I am crying now writing this a week and a half after the fact.  But now it is more than crying for the animals.  
Nowadays I cry for the human suffering, for the families who went to different shelters then were bussed to different states- not knowing who of their family or friends is still alive or where they are; for the Americans who are shooting at fire trucks, policemen and helicopters trying to bring help; for the children who began school this week in a different state.. far away from their homes, with nothing- no hope to hold on to, no home to go home to, their lives shattered into pieces literally overnight.  When I first began my adventures with Katrina in Miami, I had no idea I’d be leaving with such great lessons… nor did I realize at the time just how fortunate we in Miami had been.

Posted: Jul 29, 2006 7:47pm | (1) | (0) |  
Blog: When Kelley Met Katrina (part 2)  
August 29th:  Let Me Be a Vessel … Let Me Help
The Red Cross had been staging at the Sheraton Hotel- which is part of the Miami Mart- since Katrina hit southern Florida.  Having always been a person who is motivated to help others in need, Saturday I had asked one of the volunteers if it was possible for me to help with them after our show was over in the evenings, after 6:00.  Unfortunately, the lady said they were all out in the field by then and did not return until the day’s work was done.  Even though I had inquired earlier in my week’s stay in Miami about helping, it was gnawing at me by Monday when I watched the live video footage from Mississippi and Louisiana.  I prayed again, not this time for the Lord to watch over the people in Katrina’s path- but to make me a vessel to help anyone, anywhere along the way… in any way I could.  I was no longer taking my good fortune as lightly as I had previously.  I was becoming more and more aware of just how lucky we had been in the bigger picture- and how much worse things could have been for us in Miami.

Suddenly, the swanky hotel, the air conditioning, hot showers, delicious gourmet food - nothing- was as important anymore in light of the turmoil other people were going through.  And for them it was just beginning- for me, my week was almost over and I could return home… life would resume as it had been before I left.  Everything would be as it was.  But not for them.  I agonized over not being able to help… but having prayed about it and offering my being in service to others, I had faith that if it was His will there would be an opportunity to help.

Monday was another slow day at the show and the only thing I was really looking forward to was afterwards - giving Lynn (the VP of our Florida brokerage and my best buddy among them) some lessons, tricks and tips I taught myself while working with PhotoShop for my company’s websites and print advertising.  Since power had been restored to many areas of the city, a number of the group had moved from the Wyndham Resort/South Beach back to the Wyndham Summerfield Suites where we began.

Being a practical joker- and also firmly believing that laughter is the best medicine- I was inspired with a devilishly funny idea during this, the third slow day of the Miami Gift Show.  An idea I knew I should wait to carry out until the last half hour of the day so Sam’s fit would be laughter and not a conniption.  Earlier in the day, I had passed by a booth with all sorts of baby dolls.  Vinyl, porcelain, delicate or lifelike… they seemed to have all sorts.  When I saw it, I had a flash – a funny vision, if you will.  At about 5:25, I approached the fellow in the booth and explained what had happened the first day of the show with the mother breastfeeding the toddler and how I wanted to ‘re-create’ the scenario and borrow one of his babies as an accomplice.  (I had to explain what was going on in order for him to let me- a complete stranger- just take a piece of his merchandise!  I even offered to leave my exhibitor badge as collateral, so he knew I’d be back to return the doll, but he said it was fine.)

As luck would have it, I was wearing a V-neck top that day and, using the baby doll as a sort of push-up bra and pulling a small part of the V slightly to the side, I was able to make it appear as if I were totally exposed and breast-feeding (the baby doll was toddler age, too!)  I prepped my outfit and appearance in a neighbor’s booth, so by the time I was casually meandering through our broker’s booth “everything” was in place.  Most of my colleagues knew what I was going to do- kind of like a kid at Christmas, I just couldn’t’ keep such a funny idea to myself!  The person whose reaction I really wanted- and whose laughter was really important- was Sam’s. (He had worried about all of the manufacturers’ reps coming in to Miami, cared for us when we did not have comfortable housing, was concerned for all of us knowing we had to go back to our offices and explain our sales numbers- or lack of them.  Of all the folks who looked out for and worried about us as a group, it was Sam, he was our father for a week… and, if just for a brief moment, I wanted to break some of his tension and just make him laugh heartily.)  After what seemed like an eternity casually walking around the booth pretending to be looking at the merchandise, he finally noticed me.. then he saw what I was doing and just broke out in the most heavenly gales of laugher.  Mission accomplished!

That evening, I rode with Lynn and our broker’s newest rep, Jan, back to their hotel: the Wyndham Summerfield Suites where I had begun my adventure.  It was strange in a way to be back on the third floor and be able to see where I was going.  I reminisced with them about my funny methods of remembering exactly how to get back to my room.  My original room was 353 and Jan was in 356, so we were just down the hall from the scene of the start of my adventures.  Lynn went down to her room to get refreshed and I went over to 356 and hung out with Jan, watching the news reports on how devastating Katrina had been that day in New Orleans and surrounding areas. 

A little while later, now part of a new threesome of redheads, Lynn, Jan and I went out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant in the strip mall behind the Summerfield Suites.  We also had great conversation and lots of laughs sharing stories with each other (there must be something about us redheads!)  After dinner, Lynn and I were feeling the lateness of the evening and knew we had to put our noses to the grindstone to get some PhotoShop tutoring in before we got too tired.  Sam ended up joining us as well, learning as much as I could fit into our time together for this purpose.  With as much as we could absorb for an evening- an evening before the last day of the show which would require the extra energy to tear it all down and pack it up- we called it a night.


August 30:  You Just Never Know Who You’ll Meet in a Day

It was the last day of the show and we were all riding on a bit of a high, knowing we’d be going home soon.  I think Sam felt awful about the lack of customers attending the show, but in the end, it was as out of his control as it was out of ours.  Trying to come up with some plausible argument to justify the trip when I got back to the office, I finally decided it’s just the Law of Averages.  We had had increasingly great numbers at this show since I began attending and there will always be not-so-great shows to pull those numbers back down to a realistic average. 

I was outside the Mart before the show opened when I struck up a conversation with a fellow from Texas.  A very kind fellow indeed. As we ended our conversation, he invited me to stop by his booth sometime during the day.  Now, I usually do not ‘shop’ very much during a show- my place is in the booth, not out shopping in the other booths!  However, having bonded in some way with him during our brief conversation, I took a break early in the morning to see what he was selling.

The company Ken works for sells- among other things- a natural potpourri made from large chunks of salt dug from the earth and scented with essential oils.  This kind of thing was right up my alley and I enjoyed going from bowl to bowl and filling my nostrils with scents from Christmas Cookies and Citrus Punch to Patchouli and Nag Champa.  Having settled on a few fragrances, I bought a slew of small bags for myself and others.  Since I really had more than I could carry, Ken helped me back to the booth with my fragrant finds.  When he saw I was with specialty food exhibitors, he quietly asked if we had any sort of chocolates left over- chocolate covered almonds, or anything- that he and his boss would be greatly appreciative as they still had to drive back to Texas after the show.  (A route that, of course, would be taking them through the ravaged states of Mississippi and Louisiana, among others.)  He said he’d even be willing to buy samples from me. I told him not to worry about it, I’d make sure they were taken care of for their trip.

Being the kind of person who- when I believe strongly in something- can be a natural salesperson through my excitement alone, I was sharing my finds with booth mates….letting them smell each one.  I had two buddies with me when I returned ten or fifteen minutes later, each friend buying all sorts of salt potpourri from this nice guy from Texas.  I had a chance to talk more with Ken and his boss about the route they were to take and how they saw that interstate sign on the news with water coming up to the bottom of it.  They were not sure how they were going to get home, but would probably have to go way up and out of their way in order to make it back. 

In an instant, I heard a voice in my mind, almost echoing in my head,  reminding me of the prayer I had said the morning before – begging to be of some help, somewhere, to someone.  As soon as I returned to the our booths, I began my campaign with a bag in hand:  first going to a manufacturer of chocolate delicacies since Ken had mentioned some chocolate to help keep them going; then putting in a big can of our Sea Salt Nuts and Crab House Crunch; on to my buddy, Valerie, who had a lot of ready to eat dips and salsas… I wanted to send the guys off with foods they could just open and eat no matter where they were.  We gathered bags of tortilla chips and pretzels to go along with the dips as well.  By the time we were all finished, I had filled three grocery bags for these guys and my heart was filled with joy and- even if it was on a small scale- I was filled with purpose as well.  I thanked everyone for their contributions and the ‘tres cabezas rojas’ went to deliver the goodies to Ken and his boss, Shane.

Surprise does not come close to describing their reaction.  As a matter of fact, I think I will skip their reaction and go on to the best part of that moment… it was my conversation with Ken in the following minutes about how the Lord sends people and opportunities our way, usually when we least expect them, and what blessings they are.  We shared our similar beliefs for a while before exchanging hugs.  He said something like, ‘this is how we say thanks in Texas’ to which I replied that it was how we said it in Virginia, too.  I made sure to pick up his card and brochure because I knew I’d worry about them getting home safely and would want to call and/or e-mail to ensure they got back all right.


Later That Day:  Coming Full Circle

As it was the last day of the show, some of my colleagues and friends were flying out at various times during the afternoon and others, like me, were flying out the next day.  When the show ended at 3, the mayhem of breaking down began.  Since I did not fly out until the day after the show each year, it was my habit to stay at the Mart and help the mainframe our broker’s reps dismantle as many of the displays as I could.

I always have the greatest conversations with this group of people- they are just great folks I love! One conversation in particular would come back to me a few hours later.  MaryJo, one of the broker’s reps and I were talking about music- something I had not heard all week and really missed.  The conversation got on songs we each love because of their inspirational value.  I was telling her how the song I’m loving now- a song I always heard as the perfect message from the human race to the Lord- was Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up” and how uplifting it is to me every time I hear it.

The afternoon wore into evening and I think it was around 6:15 or so when I left with my friend Frank from a candy company to head back to the Summerfield Suites (since Rhonda and Valerie were flying out that day, I was moving back to the original hotel where I began my stay.)  He and I really had not had much chance to catch up with each other and talk since he was the one stuck in the Atlanta airport and got in and set up very early the first day of the show.  We have a standing “date” of sorts to go swimming the last night before returning home and, you guessed it, enjoy good conversations and lots of laughter.  He has a great sense of humor that clicked with mine the first time I met him at the Miami Gift show four years ago and is one of the folks I always look forward to seeing there.

We were sitting in the clubhouse room for the free social time the Summerfield offers, enjoying a drink.  I was reminiscing about the last time I had been in the clubhouse room and the adventures with the hurricane since he had missed all that excitement.  As I was telling him about my conversation with Rhonda and Valerie about the dream I had before leaving for Miami and the black cat scurrying about outside during the storm while I was telling the girls about the dream, Frank caught something out of the corner of his eye and said, “Oh, there’s your black cat now!”

Sure enough, I saw it too and said, “Frank, could you excuse me for just a minute?  I need to have some words with this cat!”  He knows me well and just laughed as I headed out the door to the patio, barely even waiting for his answer.  I started talking to the black cat, telling him how I had seen him in the storm and worried about him.. and how happy I was to see he made it through all right.  He immediately began rubbing up against me and I was still talking to him and giving him love when I noticed a second, smaller and much shyer cat afraid to approach.  Knowing Frank was still inside waiting to pick up our conversation where I interrupted it for the cat, I told the kitties I’d be back in a little bit and to wait for me.  They both laid down and watched me as I returned inside.

When the social time was over- and the beer, wine and appetizers taken back into the kitchen- Frank and I both decided to go to our rooms and figure out our dinner plans.  Of course, the trip to my room involved going back out on the patio first to love on the cats some more.  The larger cat came right up to me and picked up where we had left off while the smaller female was still a little apprehensive.  Eventually, she came close enough for me to gently give her a few rubs, too, talking to both of them in a soothing tone and telling them how special they were.  Then, I had another flash of inspiration:  I had absolutely no idea why I had done it at the time, but did it any way- I had packed two packets of our 2.5 oz. smoked salmon filets in my bag from the show.  I told the kitties I’d be right back and to stay there, then literally ran back to my room- 356, by the way, the same room Jan had the night before that I had been visiting in.  I got the two salmon packets, a couple of bowls and a knife to open them with.  Then I ran back downstairs to the pool area, afraid the cats would not have been patient enough to wait for a stranger and move on to continue their hunt for food.

To my delight, they were both still there…. The big black cat almost seemed to be saying, “See?  I understood you and waited.”  I opened both packets and emptied the contents into the two bowls.  I could tell they ate well, were not starving and were taken care of at some time (I could tell by their weight, the good shape of their shiny coats and lack of signs of maltreatment.) Just watching them enjoying this treat gave me a warm feeling inside.  Then I heard the music coming from the stereo system by the pool- the first music I had heard all week- it was Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up.” 

I’m not sure if it was the sweat dripping down my face and getting into my eyes or if I was just plain crying tears of joy, but again I thought of the animals in my dream, the beautiful thing I was experiencing with these cats I worried about from the start of Katrina adventure and the ‘irony’ of hearing the song I had just been telling MaryJo about a couple of hours prior- I was Divinely touched in that moment, in a way I am not sure I know how to describe.  That was when I decided that I don’t believe in coincidences- I believe that what we humans call coincidence is the Lord’s way of reminding us He’s always got a hand in things- no matter how big or small, momentous or insignificant-seeming..

When the kitties were settled after their dinner, I retired to my room for a quick bite before meeting Frank down at the pool for our swim date.  When I got back down to the patio, only the smaller of the cats was still around, lounging by the pool in one of the potted miniature palms, playing and watching my every move.  She moved over to my recliner and rubbed against my shoes while I swam and talked to Frank.

That night was the best sleep I had during the week in Miami.  It was peaceful and I fell asleep with a smile on my face I’m sure.

August 30th:  Is That A Bomb in Your Bag or Do You Work For a Seafood Company?
One of the friends I made at the Summerfield Suites last year, Alberto, I met when he drove me to the airport to return home.  I had not seen him this year and thought maybe he did not work there anymore.  Well, as I was checking out I saw him for the first time this trip and immediately greeted him with a great big smile and a tone of fond recognition.  He and I once again got the chance to share my ride back to the airport after a full week at the Miami Gift Show.  We caught up on our happenings in the year that had past.  It was the perfect completion to my adventure- or so I thought my adventure was complete!

I got to the airport unusually later than normal- only an hour before my flight.  But, with all the times I had flown in and out of that airport, I was not worried about that what-so-ever.  I got my stuff checked in at curbside, got my tickets for Pittsburgh and the connection to Norfolk and proceeded inside to go through security.  As I was approaching the security gate- just as I was about to go through- TSA employees began scurrying around with great unspoken intensity.  They began cordoning off the entry through security and told everyone to get back, they had to close the entrance off.

Concerned, I waited the distance they requested everyone be and watched the time tick away- getting closer and closer to the time of my departure.  After about a half an hour, they finally allowed folks back through.  Fortunately the lady who was checking tickets and ID remembered I was as the head of the line and said I could come through, ahead of everyone who had accumulated since the security gate closure.  Being an inquisitive person, I asked one of the ladies at the X-ray machine what had happened.  She said there was some sort of threat and they had called the bomb squad to make sure everything was safe.  I got through security and to my gate with enough time to sit and ponder the contents of my suitcase.  That’s when I saw in my mind’s eye the cone-shaped crab buoy I had to pack in my suitcase because there wasn’t room anywhere else to put it.  I laughed to myself, wondering if I had set off the security scare.  Not knowing for sure, I just giggled to myself as I pondered the possibility and plausibility of the buoy being what had been detected as a threat.

Everything else went without a hitch, getting to Pittsburgh in time to make my connection and getting back to Norfolk as scheduled.  Just when I thought my adventure was over, I was reminded that my adventure never ends…. It is every day of my life, depending on how I live it, perceive it, react to it…. As a friend told me recently, it’s how I experience everything in life.  So, this was one of my adventures and I look forward to each and every one, knowing there’s always a lesson to be learned, something to be appreciative of, someone interesting to meet, something to learn and grow from, an event or series of events to be touched by… there’s always something out there to experience!

Post script: If you are so inclined, I would love to hear from those who have read my first little novella, as I jokingly call it.  I am sending it out to friends and colleagues with the invitation to pass it along to anyone who might be interested in reading it and am curious to see how far and into whose hands it travels.  This is the first step for me as I move into a new chapter of my life where I am actually putting thoughts and words into actions in carrying out what I’ve always known to be my mission in life- to help people in need, lift spirits, inspire and motivate, to be a living example.   I have learned that I will not be rich here (points to open hand) but that I will be rich here (points to heart) and that you can take with you!
The next project I’m working on is writing a one-woman play of sorts, chronicling my life adventures as a pregnant teenager/runaway living in a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C., in the mid-80’s.  My purpose is to go back to that shelter and share my story with current residents there….. if only for a fleeting moment to give them hope, to encourage them to have a dream and make each day a step closer to achieving it.  If nothing else, just keep me in your prayers.

Posted: Jul 29, 2006 3:51pm | (3) | (0) |  
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