Childhood hometown becomes haven

Melanie Salazar

Hurricane Katrina took Jose Garcia and his family out of Biloxi, Miss.

A series of less predictable events brought Garcia and another family to his old home in Portales.

On Aug. 29, Garcia and his family left their home in Biloxi. Though they considered staying as Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast, the family worried about their 5-year-old son Ysidro and felt threatened by category three classification of the coming storm.

They drove to Pensacola, Fla. to stay with friends. The 104-mile drive took them seven hours. At the same time, many others were also on the road, seeking refuge elsewhere.

Meanwhile, some 25 miles away from Biloxi in Diamondhead, family friends of the Garcias decided not to go anywhere.

Craig and Wendy Kirby had seen hurricanes before, and expected the same thing to happen, as it had in the past.
“They (the hurricanes) seem to come straight for us and miss,” Craig Kirby said.

“It always moved at the last minute. I just assumed, even if it did hit us, big deal.”

However, as Katrina increased in strength, the Kirbys realized this storm was different.

“The rain was white. You couldn’t see anything,” Craig Kirby said.

“The house started shaking; the doors started pulsing. We’ll never look at hurricanes the same way.

The Kirbys decided to leave; the trip was extremely difficult.
“We didn’t even have enough gas to get gas,” said Craig Kirby. “That was the worst part.

“In a 200-mile radius in Biloxi, you couldn’t get gas.
“You were stuck.”

It wasn’t until five families pooled their money to buy gas that the Kirbys finally made their way out of town, just two hours before the area was quarantined.

Craig, Wendy Kirby, and their children took clothes to last them for a week.

Two days after the storm, Jose Garcia returned from Pensacola to help friends repair damages on their property.

“It was just hideous — the stench, the heat. It was awful,” Garcia said. “I’m still feeling the effects of it.”

The Garcias and the Kirbys communicated through text messages. Jose Garcia offered them a place to stay in Portales where he grew up, and where his parents still lived.

The two families met up in Houston and a group of nine, including children, traveled towards Portales.

The families expect to be in the city, at the home of Joe L. and Consuelo Garcia on N. Ave. K, for a few more days.

The Garcias plan to visit other relatives, but neither the Garcias nor the Kirbys have made long-term plans.

Both families said the uncertainty is the hardest part of the whole experience.

“What can we do?” said Shari Garcia. “It’s hard to get information from anyone. We’re still considered employed so we can’t collect unemployment.”

Both families share the same worries about their futures: They have no homes, no jobs, no health insurance, and no way to know what lies ahead.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do now,” Jose Garcia said.
Wendy Kirby is also worried about her four children — four of whom are staying with them in Portales.

“There’s no normal life for them,” she said. “There’s nothing we can do as parents to make them normal.”

Alhough their lives have been thrown upside-down over the past few weeks, the two families are grateful for the warm welcome they received from the people of Portales.

At a car-wash held outside Wal-Mart, residents donated some much-needed supplies to the families.

The neighborliness of his childhood town touched Garcia with pride.

“I grew up here. I love Portales,” Jose Garcia said.

As he looked around familiar streets and faces, childhood memories returned.

“The people here in Portales are great people,” he said.