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Couple living on dock, keeping watch over damaged shrimp boat

GULFPORT, Miss.—Their house leveled, their car inoperable, their shrimp boat shipwrecked, Chau Nguyen and his wife, Le, have begun to start over—living on a narrow dock along the Gulfport Industrial Seaway.

Their roof: a blanket and a tarp. Their walls: bed sheets. Their kitchen: a burning log atop a piece of sheet metal.

Relief workers have offered the Nguyens a place to stay, but they politely refuse. Chau Nguyen, 50, wants to keep watch over his beached boat, which is perched on the bank, looking as if it's about to slide into the water deck first. Le Nguyen, who's in her mid-30s, refuses to leave her husband's side.

She is five months pregnant, with twins.

"The fact that we stuck by each other means I truly love my wife, and my wife truly loves me," Nguyen said Thursday, recalling how Hurricane Katrina spun their boat around and around the day it hit.

After the storm, a friend drove Nguyen to his neighborhood in Biloxi, Miss., where he found his two-bedroom house had collapsed and his van had flooded.

The couple decided to make their temporary home on the dock, about 10 feet above smelly water the color of old coffee.

Coast Guard reservists who are patrolling the channel—a waterway littered with dozens of broken boats and the smell of diesel—were so touched by the couple's plight in the days after the storm that they took up a collection and bought nearly $300 worth of blankets, towels, gloves and other goods from a local Wal-Mart.

They also brought a young Coast Guard petty officer from Alabama, Huynh Nguyen, the son of a shrimp fisherman, who's fluent in the couple's native Vietnamese and has become their interpreter.

And they sent a doctor to check on Le Nguyen. She's healthy. The twins, who'll be called Tina and Linda, are fine.

The Nguyens have received boxes of military Meals Ready To Eat as well as prenatal vitamins, bottled water, toilet paper, sugar and a plastic tub with clothes.

"We talked to them about shelter services, and feeding, and financial assistance," Red Cross spokesman Brian Fern said.

But the couple won't budge. It wasn't until Thursday that Red Cross workers persuaded Le Nguyen to leave her makeshift home for a few hours, to see a doctor and complete Federal Emergency Management Agency paperwork.

"My heart goes out to them," Fern said. "I completely understand they don't want to leave their boat for fear of looting, but we're going to try to work every avenue we can to provide them with services."

Until then, the Nguyens spend each day watching the environmental cleanup boats sail down the bayou, eating rice cooked in an old black pot, waiting to see whether a crane can pick up their boat and drop it back in the water.

Nearby, Navy divers continue to clear the bayou of debris and search for bodies.

The Nguyens have food for several days. The one need that hasn't been met is an electrical source to recharge their cellular phone.

"I want to start rebuilding from scratch, provide a house for my wife," Chau Nguyen said, squatting on the dock with his back facing his boat, stuck 100 yards away. "All I can do is wait."

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(Garcia reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-KATRINA-STRANDED

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