The day before Hurricane Katrina hit their hometown of Pass Christian, MS, the Diaz family—parents Barrett and Rebecca and children William, 6, and Ellie, 3—boarded up their brick house, packed up a few important papers, and decamped to a local hotel to wait out the storm, just as they’d done in past hurricane seasons. It wasn’t until Katrina tore the roof off their hotel that the family fully understood the magnitude of the storm—and the likelihood that they’d return home to something much worse than a few downed power lines. Their worst fears were realized: High winds and floodwaters had ravaged their house, and everything inside had washed out to sea. Only a few items lay scattered around the yard—a favorite painting, a small table, and all of the couple’s wedding china, miraculously unbroken inside padded storage boxes.

After the storm destroyed their home, top, the Diaz family bought and renovated Barrett’s parents’ home, middle, which had been flooded but not flattened. A plaque, above, by the door to the bar, left, marks how high the floodwaters rose inside the house—28 feet.


“It would have been easier to move away. But this is our home, and we couldn’t leave it.”
Adjacent to the full dining room, this alcove is where Chris and Kevin enjoy intimate dinners—and read the papers on Sunday morning.

Almost two full years later, the Diaz family had managed to reconstruct some of their life. When Barrett’s parents decided to relocate instead of renovate their house, which had barely survived the storm, Barrett and Rebecca jumped at the chance to buy it— then spent every last cent (as well as every ounce of energy) repairing and renovating it. But after William broke his arm during a lapse in the family’s health insurance (Barrett had just started a new job ), the couple’s remaining savings went for surgery rather than furniture. “At that point we just said to ourselves, ‘It’s OK. We’ve gotten through this much; we can live in an empty house for a while,’” says Rebecca. And so they did, ignoring the vacant rooms’ echoes as they sat at a borrowed dining table or watched TV on the lone sofa. Then along came the lucky break they needed.

Helping Out

“I wanted to do something to celebrate the 30th anniversary of my company,” says designer Chris Madden, “something that would support my philosophy of giving back. So we looked into which of the communities were most affected by Hurricane Katrina and found that almost 90 percent of the homes in the town of Pass Christian in southern Mississippi had been destroyed. I went to my partner, JCPenney, with the idea of creating a haven for a family that had lost everything, and together, we were able to furnish the Diaz house and help them begin to rebuild their home life.” To create a comfortable home for the family, Chris and her design team worked with the wall colors that Barrett and Rebecca had already chosen: yellow in the family room, sage in the master bedroom, blue in William’s room, and pink in Ellie’s. “Our goal was to create rooms that didn’t look like they’d been purchased all at once,” says Chris.

HOME BASE

Rebecca, Ellie, William, and Barrett love the open layout of their new house, which makes family gettogethers, like this crab boil, easy as well as fun. After nearly two years of renovating, they are happy to be in their home and part of their community again

FINDING FLOW

Furnishing an open-plan living and dining area presents special challenges. Chris approached it by emphasizing the windows and their bayou views in both spaces. “Also, we unified the room by using matching 8′ by 10′ rugs in both areas and the same window treatments throughout,” she says.

Mixing a variety of woods and finishes, as well as a range of styles, when selecting both furnishings and accessories (many of which were found in local shops and markets), helped make the rooms look like they’d evolved naturally over time, explains Chris. “We also wanted to include anything from the family’s original home that had managed to survive the hurricane,” she says. For William and Ellie’s sake, the design team was very conscious of moderating the elegance of the family room with kid-friendly practicality. They chose sturdy chenille upholstery for the sofa and side chairs, and durable wool rugs that can be spot cleaned as needed. “In a space that will be used by the whole family, focus the elegance on the fabrics that don’t get much handling, such as the window treatments,” advises Chris. Even the accessories were chosen to withstand examination by little hands: seashells, books, and baskets to hold family treasures.


SWEET DREAMS

Pretty enough for a princess, Ellie’s room now has a bed with a trundle for guests, extra storage, and a desk vanity. Chris tempered the pink palette with hints of crisp green.

Bedrooms got the royal treatment as well. Ellie’s is girlish, but not too sweet to become more grown-up someday. A mirrored armoire holds doll clothes now, but will augment her closet as her own wardrobe grows. William’s room (not pictured) has an oversize dresser with extra drawers for his treasures. Barrett and Rebecca’s private retreat is deeper and richer in color than the light and airy palette that’s used throughout the rest of the house. “The Diazes already had a mission-style dresser, which, along with the green walls, gave us the cues we needed to create a bolder look. We kept a hint of autumn in the color palette—it’s nice to be reminded of seasonal changes when you’re living in a warm climate like this,” says Chris. The large, angular space easily accommodated a cozy seating area as well.

Starting Over

When you’re putting together a room—or an entire house—from scratch, decorating can seem overwhelming. The best way to get going, Chris recommends, is to put the big picture out of your mind and concentrate instead on a small area. “Start with something you love—a favorite chair or a sofa or a piece of art—and create a cozy vignette around it,” she says. “Don’t feel you have to do the whole room at once—just get your wall colors right and build from there. And if you haven’t found the right table, for example, don’t compromise. Use a folding card table and chairs until you find the dining set that fits your family, your style, and your needs perfectly.” When Rebecca wasn’t able to buy the furnishings she wanted for her family’s new house, she picked up a few pieces of art from local artists and friends. She chose items that inspired her and reflected the color, look, and feel of the rooms she wanted to create one day. “We used Rebecca’s newly acquired artwork throughout the rooms, and they really helped set the tone for the decorating,” says Chris. Today, Rebecca no longer has to dream about the home she wants for her family: She has it. Hurricane Katrina’s devastation may still be everywhere you turn in coastal Mississippi, but the Diaz family, with a little help, has finally come home.

(SECOND) HONEYMOON SUITE

The design team gave the master bedroom a warm, inviting look by making sure to integrate the walls’ sage tones and the substantial mission-style dresser with their own careful additions. The colors in the bedding and window treatments— created by JCPenney Custom Decorating—complement the strong hues in a watercolor that a friend painted to replace artwork the family lost in the storm.

THEY DO WINDOWS (AND MORE!)

Love the look of custom designed window treatments and bedding—but don’t have an interior designer on your payroll? Several reasonably priced options:

  • JCPenney Custom Decorating did all the window treatments, bedding, and tablecloths in the Diaz house. A decorator came for a consultation, bringing fabric books as well as lots of ideas. Then, JCPenney’s fabricators made each item and returned for installation. The service is included in the price of the piece purchased. Call 866-239-2588.
  • Interiors by Decorating Den has a similar service, with an in-home visit for advice on everything from furniture placement to window treatments. Visit decoratingden.com for more details.
  • Calico Corners, the fabric retailer, can also help you decorate. For $75, you’ll get an in-home consultation as well as an in-store follow-up. Visit calicocorners.com.