Name: Hattie Laffoon Gray and Benny Gray
Age: Hattie is 47, and Benny is 60.
Location: 283 Ninth St., Biloxi. They had moved into the rental home in 1994.
Before the storm: Hattie, who suffers from arthritis and hearing difficulties, and Benny, who has had heart bypass surgery, live on monthly disability checks. Before the storm, Hattie would watch pets for friends, relatives and neighbors. "I feel like that is my niche in life," she said. "I just wanted a safe place for them and to take care of them." Benny was an offshoreman and a commercial fisherman before an accident led to his disability.
How did you survive the storm? Hattie and Benny stayed in their home and were caring for a houseful of animals, including eight dogs, seven puppies and a parrot. When the water started rising, they put all of the animals in the attic with them. When water began filling the attic, they were able to escape through an attic door and ran across the top of the home and huddled on the front porch roof. Some of the dogs came with them and jumped on the porch roof as it broke free from the house and drifted. When the porch began to sink, they swam to another roof to cling onto. During the storm, they were able to reach a rope in a tree and used it to tie themselves together so they wouldn't be separated. They battled Katrina in the open for as many as 12 hours before getting to a fire station for help. From there, they were taken to Michel Seventh Grade School in Biloxi. After a few hours, they decided to get back to what was left of their home and wait for relatives and friends to bring help. They found that the parrot and all the adult dogs lived, but one Chihuahua puppy and six 8-day-old pit bull puppies perished. When their son arrived, he found some of Hattie's camping supplies around the shattered home, and they camped there for six days before moving to "camp out" with other friends. "That's my thing, I take my children camping and my grandchildren, and it's a way for us to bond as a family, and it also teaches them survival skills," Hattie said. "They don't realize we're teaching them (these skills) until they have to use them, and then they say, 'Wow, Mom taught us this, and now we know why.'
How are you surviving now? In early September, Hattie and Benny found a small apartment on Porter Avenue. "We're still living off our $603 a month checks, and FEMA has been helping me with rental assistance, and rent is paid up until October," Hattie said. "It's small. It feels like two little bitty FEMA trailers on top of each other." The Grays have since found a house in Escatawpa through a HUD program and they are making plans to move into the three-bedroom brick home. Her father lives nearby. "It's very, very encouraging. God is continuing to bless us. I know it's slow and everything is hectic now, but there's got to be a light at end of the tunnel somewhere out there," Hattie said. "We could be stuck in a tent somewhere, and I do have my camping equipment just in case."