OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss.—Catherine Garriga and her family were eating breakfast on the morning of Aug. 29 when the back door of Garriga's Ocean Springs home blew off.
Seated at the kitchen table were eight people. Garriga, her mother, a friend, two toddlers and three foster children—a 13-year-old girl and two teenage boys.
Garriga knew the 13-year-old girl—she had been a foster parent to her before the storm. But the two teenage boys—Vincent and Dwight—were strangers.
Less than 48 hours earlier, a social worker had called Garriga and asked if she would take the two teenage boys. They were being evacuated from their current placements—one from a juvenile detention center and the other from a job program—and had no place to go.
Garriga had little room in her already crammed home—but said yes.
It was a decision that probably saved Garriga's family's lives. Vincent, 16, and Dwight, 15, who Garriga now calls "my boys," not only saved her family from Katrina's rising waters but kept it afloat during the tough weeks after the storm.
"I know foster kids sometimes get a bad rap," Garriga said. "These kids didn't know me but for 48 hours before the storm and they refused to leave me."
About 9 a.m. the back door flew off the house. Then water filled the home. Garriga rushed to the bedroom to get her purse and important papers, only to find the water already over her bed.
The family scrambled as water came pouring into the house.
Vincent and Dwight grabbed Katie, Garriga's 2-year-old, and her 3-year-old friend. They climbed over a chain-link fence to a mobile home on higher ground.
The boys got ladders so Garriga and her friend Mary Motian could climb over the fence. But Garriga's mother, Marian Lupton, had suffered a stroke and was partially disabled. Garriga looked outside and saw her mother trying to swim in water that was almost over her head. Vincent and Dwight pulled her to safety. They also saved the families' three dogs and 11 birds.
"Then they went back into my house," Garriga said. "They let all of their stuff float away and went and got me Pull-Ups (diapers) for the babies."
The family rode out the storm in the neighbor's house. After eight hours, the water finally receded, but Garriga's home was littered with debris. It was impossible to walk in many rooms. An oak tree was poking threw the roof of her bedroom.
Three days after the storm, a social worker stopped to check on the three teenagers. After spending hours in the water, the 13-year-old girl was starting to get sick and was refusing to eat. Garriga insisted that she be taken somewhere for treatment. The social worker offered to take all three teenagers.
But Vincent and Dwight refused to go. "They said they wanted to stay here with me," Garriga said.
Over the next two months, Vincent and Dwight worked in sometimes 90-plus degree heat, trying to salvage what they could from Garriga's water-logged home. They made screen doors. They found food and water when the family was desperate. They scoured for keepsakes among the ruins. They helped build a makeshift shelter out of tents in the driveway. They joked and kept the family's spirits up.
At night, they would all sit around and talk. "We made up rap songs about Katrina," Garriga said, laughing.
It was an uncomfortable and difficult two months. "Every morning I doctored on my hands and feet, trying to get the puss out of the sores so I could walk," Garriga wrote in an e-mail to friends shortly after the hurricane. "Mama was starting to have trouble getting around. We were so tired. The boys took over and started to take care of us. ... I think of them leaving now and it makes me want to cry. I've never met two finer people."
Garriga's house is still a work in process. It has no indoor walls. And no heat. Daily acts of living are a chore, but Dwight and Vincent gamely pitched in, Garriga said.
Both are determined to finish school and get jobs and that means leaving Garriga and Ocean Springs.
On Monday, Vincent left for a job-training program. Garriga, who has few possessions after the storm, has offered Vincent one of her four plots in Ocean Springs so when he finishes the program, he'll have a place to build a future. And he'll be near Garriga.
Dwight is still with Garriga. But he, too, must go soon. He wants to finish high school, get a degree and a job. The school he attends is not close to Garriga's house.
But she says Dwight will always have a place to come home to. Garriga wants to start the process of adopting him. She plans to build him a room once she gets her home rebuilt so he can come to Ocean Springs on school breaks and during summers.
Dwight said this week that he knew he could leave the foster home at any time—go someplace where there was electricity, air conditioning and a hot meal. But that just didn't feel right. Even before the storm, Dwight said, he felt at home with Garriga and her family.
The teenager said when he tells his kids his Katrina story, he will tell them all about the unsinkable spunk of the woman he calls "Miss Cathy."
"We lose everything that she had and she still keeps that smile," Dwight said. "I will remember her and that smile for the next 20 years."
Garriga won't forget him or Vincent, either. "I don't know what we would have done without these two boys," she said. "They quite possibly saved our lives."
(Musgrave reports for the Lexington Herald Leader.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-STORMS-FOSTERKIDS
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