Tragedy brings native back to Portales

Melanie Salazar: Freedom Newspapers

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 it considered staying as Hurricane Katrina left its mark on the Gulf Coast, the family worried about their 5-year-old son Ysidro and felt threatened by category three classification of the upcoming storm.

Instead of staying, they drove to Pensacola, Fla. to stay with friends. The 104-mile drive took them seven hours, as many others also sought refuge elsewhere.

About 25 miles away from Biloxi in Diamondhead, family friends of the Garcias decided not to make such a trip. Craig and Wendy Kirby had seen hurricanes before, and expected the same outcome they had in the past.

“They 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.”

But as Katrina picked up its pace, and the Kirbys knew 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.”

Soon, the Kirbys decided to leave. Their trip was hard.
“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 could finally make their way out of town, just two hours before the area was quarantined. Craig and Wendy Kirby and their children took clothes to last them for a week.

Jose Garcia returned from Pensacola two days after the storm to help the friends with the damages their property had sustained.

“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 and Jose Garcia offered them a place to stay where he grew up — in Portales, where his parents still lived. The families met in Houston, and together brought nine new people, their kids included, to 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 listed their countless worries for the future: 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 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.”

Though over the past few weeks, their lives have been thrown upside down, both families are grateful for the warm welcome they’ve already received from the people of Portales.

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

“I grew up here. I love Portales,” Jose Garcia said. “The people here in Portales are great people.”