When hurricane Katrina came ashore on August 29, 2005 in southern Louisiana, it brought with it winds of 125mph and a storm surge of nearly 14 feet. The large storm savaged New Orleans and the surrounding parishes, ultimately killing over eighteen hundred people. Katrina pummeled Baton Rouge 80 miles to the northwest, where Scott Skalisky and his family were sheltering inside their own home, and began to transform Scott’s life.
“It was very bizarre,” says Scott, “Everything seemed so normal, nothing much more than a summer shower.” The storm’s fury hit between 3:00 and 4:00 am with steady 80 mph winds that didn’t let up for the next five hours. There was nothing they could do but wait. Huddled away from windows, they listened to glass shattering all around, trees uprooting and crashing, and even the sound of their roof as it was ripped away. “It was the first time in my life that I can say I was really afraid, scared for my life and my family’s. I remember my five-year-old son crying, ‘Hernacanes coming Daddy. Hernacanes coming,’ and I asked myself, ‘Is this my last day?’ That’s where the process, the whole new mindset began.”
Up to that point, Scott had been a successful businessman in Baton Rouge, with the fruits of his success to show for it. “I had been this successful business person, making a good income, had a beautiful home on two and a half acres, and I’d accumulated all this stuff.” But Katrina, and three weeks later, hurricane Rita bringing heavy downpours, blew away and flooded out his success.
After the five hours of Katrina’s wrath everything was calm and peaceful again. Scott says it was so surreal that he wondered if he’d imagined it, but walking outside brought reality. Destruction went all the way to the horizon. There was no way of communicating. Cell phone towers were down, and electricity was out. After cutting a path through the debris, he managed to find a few friends at his church. The consensus was to go to New Orleans; they knew it had to be worse on the coast and made the 80-mile trek to the southeast as a group. Getting closer they saw burst levees and destruction beyond belief. Thousands were in a panic, in shock, having no idea what to do, where to go, or how to find family and friends. A few other rescuers arrived in boats and more arrived in the next 24 hours, but there wasn’t any real aid and no military or contract help at that time. Nearly every hospital had been significantly damaged and even if aid had arrived earlier, Scott says it wouldn’t have helped more people get out or changed the devastation. They began blindly searched for people they could help.
“I wasn’t prepared to understand the kind of death I saw around me. It was everywhere. There were no body bags for those on the streets or for those who were floating in sea water in 90-degree weather. I know that’s pretty graphic, but that’s the way it was,” says Scott. “To this day when I think about it, all the emotions I felt are right back in my face. It didn’t get better for those who were evacuating. People were ordered to get on buses without family members, and they had no idea where they were going to end up. They tried to move hospitalized patients without medications, and many were not surviving. I managed to stay for three days and then I had to get out. It was too much for me to handle.”
The time spent in New Orleans affected Scott in a way he couldn’t imagine. Despite the mass destruction and carnage, Scott’s care for the injured led to a revelation.
I was with an elderly woman who was evacuated from the hospital. I didn’t know her name; I still don’t, but I was holding her hand and trying to be comforting. She looked up at me and asked if I would help her find her husband and I said I would, but within moments I realized she’d taken her last breath. I believe I could feel her spirit flow right through my body. That was the moment that I realized how temporary my life is. I’m not guaranteed tomorrow, not even this afternoon. In the midst of the storm, I’d asked myself if this was my last day and I now realized that if it was, I didn’t have a legacy that I wanted to leave behind. My success had been an empty success, but I hadn’t known it at the time. Achievements, ego, climbing the ladder. I’d felt I needed to be successful in everyone else’s eyes. I’d spent a huge amount of time trying to impress people I didn’t even know, and I’d forgotten what is really important; maybe I just never knew what was important. All of it was useless energy spent.
Arriving back in Baton Rouge, Scott found his challenges had only begun. In the aftermath, his business went to zero as clients liquidated their accounts to survive. The company holding the mortgage on his home expected business as usual. They still wanted their payments even though he couldn’t live in his home while the construction crews made repairs, which took months. Then he found it almost impossible to sell because buyers shied away from once flooded properties. Eventually, he claimed bankruptcy. He talked about his feelings of wanting to blame and point fingers.
It’s cancer, you know. It doesn’t get you immediately, but over months. It was a time when I could have become very bitter, very angry, resentful. However it must just be in my nature, there is a part of me that needed to push through it, feel the pain, but then focus on where I wanted to go from there. My first blessing came 30 days after the storm when business associates in Kansas City offered me a job.
Sunshine always comes after a storm, and in Scott’s case, the experience he’d had in New Orleans and Baton Rouge led to profound change. “The entire experience ultimately showed me a part of myself that I didn’t know existed…I never realized what an unhappy person I was with the stuff. I hadn’t realized you couldn’t pull a U-Haul behind a hearse.” It’s taken him a while to discover who this changed person is.
I have a whole new view on what selfishness is. I didn’t believe I was selfish, but when I looked in the mirror it was evident, and that is not a trait that I wanted to have. Victimization, self-pity. That’s selfishness. I looked deeper into myself and found integrity and humility. Today, my dreams are to help others see their success and to share with others about offering hope. I’ve so many opportunities that I wouldn’t have had. I talk to people who are going through challenges and tell them not to allow themselves to go into the victim role. I tell them to persevere and find the lessons that appear in tragic times. There are lessons in everything we do and we need to face them. When I experienced the mortgage company’s lack of empathy, I asked myself if I was like that, just interested in the bottom line, or was there compassion? I found compassion in me. That was one of the lessons. I discovered that I had choices. I can be a caring person or an angry one. Now every day I ask myself if I’m just taking up time, or making time valuable? In my business, ‘Am I a boss, or a leader? Could I do something to help make someone else’s life easier?’ The process I went through has allowed me now, today, to not only share these experiences but to help others find hope.
Scott also says the experience has taught him the importance of having a good solid personal life. He feels that without personal fulfillment you can’t have a successful business. Today he lives very peacefully with an attitude of I’m here to serve first, not to be served. He understands that he first has to give in order to receive and that that understanding has brought him success once again. He’s allowing himself to dream and he’s back on the road to seeing his dreams manifested.
I’m passionate about the opportunity to pursue my dreams because I have meaningful dreams today. I’ve walked through fear and that allows me to take risks. I love going out and trying something new. That’s living. I’m also passionate about giving back. I learned it’s okay to ask for help and take it. So much was freely given that now it’s not just my desire, but my responsibility to give back. An opportunity that is truly a fulfillment of life.
Scott has defined his legacy and is writing his obituary every day with his actions. He says, “I realize that every morning when I wake and the sun is shining, it’s a gift.” That may sound like a cliché, but for Scott it is real. It is how he lives his life today.