Like so many victims of Hurricane Katrina, the Hosty family lost everything but each other and are now putting their lives back together, one piece at a time

By Suzanne Stempinski
field editor

Katt Hosty starts her day quietly. Her husband Jay is on the road. Their three daughters are sleeping peacefully in their beds. She looks around her FEMA-provided trailer and wonders how much longer it will be before they will live in a home of their own.

She wonders if she'll ever really feel safe again.

It has been more than six months since Hurricane Katrina blew into the Gulf and tore their world apart. For the most part, the rest of the country has moved on to other events topping the news.

But for the Hostys and thousands of others like them, there has been nowhere else to go. Every day is another step in the process of rebuilding and redefining their lives - lives that they had no desire to change.

Before the hurricane hit, life was good. Jay and Katt were, and still are, hard-working, big-hearted, church-going residents of Mississippi. Happily married for 24 years, they've built a family that reaches across state and county lines, taking in more than 150 foster children over 17 years, adopting four of them permanently - Damon, Selena, Neva and Brianna.

Financially savvy, they owned several cars, Jay's truck was paid for and they still owned their first house in Pearlington that they kept as a rental. They built a five-bedroom home three years ago in Lakeshore to accommodate their constantly fluctuating brood.

Kids, dogs, horses, a cat, a bird - there was plenty of room - and love - to go around.

On Sunday afternoon, Aug. 28, 2005, Jay went to the Central Bible Church in Bay St.       Louis to talk with their pastor. While many families were leaving the area in anticipation of the highly publicized storm, Jay didn't want to leave.

Katt was at home, packing a few things she couldn't leave behind. All their pictures - family pictures, wedding pictures, scrapbooks painstakingly put together chronicling their lives and the lives of their foster kids - went into a big blue box. Katt's jewelry box went with her, too.

She packed three sets of clothes for each family member, including three sets for a former foster daughter who was staying with them. When Jay returned, they loaded everything into the back of their pickup truck, figuring it would all be safe and dry under the camper top.

The dogs and bird went with them. Jay opened a top cabinet door in the kitchen so the cat would have a safe place to hide if the water came into the house. Their horses were just down the road. They would just have to hope for the best.

Jay had just mowed the yard and they took pictures of the way everything looked - so neat and clean in the summer sun.

The Hostys, along with several other families, spent Sunday night in the church. Some slept on the pews; others found quiet rooms to try to rest. The pastor and his wife slept in their home behind the church.

None of the adults slept very well that night - the wind was picking up and everyone was on edge.

Late Sunday night, the pastor decided to gather everyone in one room. As the hurricane neared, one of the other children told Jay there was something wrong with his pickup - the wind had pulled the top right off. The Hostys ran out and brought in their clothes, leaving the few boxes of precious possessions in the truck.

Katrina had arrived. The world outside was scary and getting worse.

Water was now seeping into the church. By 8:30 a.m. Monday, it was ankle-deep. Katt and her youngest daughter were trying to hold the door closed to keep the water out. They would not be deterred.

Finally, at the insistence of Jay and the pastor, they left the door and started to head for higher ground in the church. As they walked away, the doors burst open and water flooded in, nearly knocking them down.

Everyone made their way to the attic - 23 people in all with the youngest just 15 months old, eight dogs and a bird. It was fearful pandemonium with people screaming, afraid for their lives.

Through a window, they could see the water rising in the church, coming up the stairs toward them a little at a time. The kids started counting out loud as one-by-one the stairs disappeared.

While they still had phone service, Jay called his dad and asked him to call 9-1-1 to send help. When his dad called back - after being routed through both Lousiana- and Mississippi-based 9-1-1 dispatched centers - he told Jay that no one could help them; they'd have to fend for themselves.

Jay apologized for putting his family at risk, and told his dad he didn't think they'd make it.

They prayed. They worried. Time passed slowly. They were helpless.

The water in the church kept rising, one step at a time. The wind howled. Outside they could see vehicles floating by and crashing into each other, only to end up submerged.

There was nothing they could do. The water was up to the third step from the top.

The pastor's wife began singing a hymn, "Victory is Mine." One by one, the others joined in, bringing their voices together in hope and faith. When they looked again, the water had stopped rising and had started to recede, a little at a time. They kept singing, feeling as if they were singing the water down.

By 3 p.m. Monday, Jay and Katt, along with a few others, ventured out to survey the damage and try to retrieve some belongings - even though the water was still waist deep.

They found the remains of their boxes - all their pictures were either gone or damaged beyond repair. Katt's jewelry box had fallen over, and most of her jewelry was gone - just washed away.

They made their way to the church kitchen and found food and drinks that weren't underwater.

Some brought ice chests that survived the storm. When they brought them back to the attic everyone ate and drank just a little. They didn't know how long the rations would have to last, but they wanted to eat before it all spoiled.

There was no power, no phones - no way to contact anyone on the outside. Then they slept for a little while - physically and emotionally exhausted.

Later Monday, they went outside to a world that was almost unrecognizable. Vehicles were waterlogged and wrecked. Buildings either gone or substantially damaged.

The pastor's parents came from their home, which had survived the storm and took the pastor and his wife with them.

Jay and Katt walked down the street and came to the home of some fellow church members who were trapped inside. The house had floated off its foundation, jamming the doors and windows shut. The Hostys pried open a window to get Charles Johnson and his family out and took them back to the church.

Jay and Katt then went to retrieve a portable stove and whatever food they could salvage from the house and cooked for the group, limiting their consumption to one meal a day. They shared their food with other people who didn't have anything.

People wandered the streets in a daze, not knowing where to go or what to do.

Charles Johnson's wife, Marilyn, who worked at a nursing home, had been trapped there during the storm. When she joined the group at the church, she brought the only running vehicle - a red van.

Several from the church went to the big grocery store in town. The police allowed them to take some food - so they only took what they needed to survive. The stench was overwhelming; some people couldn't help gagging.

The floor was littered with things washed off the shelves mixed in the mucky mess.

"People went a little nuts, but in a polite way. You could hear someone call out that there was cereal in one aisle, or fresh water in another one," Katt said. "If someone slipped in the mess and fell down, someone else would help them up."

Conditions were primitive and not improving. The temperatures at the end of August were typically hot and humid. They slept outside on the parking lot on a sleeping bag they dried out in the sun.

On Wednesday, it was sunny and hot. The kids were getting frustrated, and there was no help in sight. No one could call out and no one could call in. Katt cried and cried, desperate for help to come.

The red van was low on gas and there weren't any stations open. They walked into town to an auto parts store, where they got a hose and left a note for the owners. They returned to the church and siphoned gas from their flooded, wrecked cars into the van so someone could go get help.

At one point, Jay and another man went to check on their house and horses.

Jay found the house essentially gone - the water had flooded the house and the back wall had given way. He found the cat's body in the yard and buried it there. They didn't know for days what had happened to their horses.

Three of the Hostys' five horses did not survive the storm and flooding. One miniature horse that did survive had been washed out of its stall into a tack room. Another, a palomino, somehow made it.

Jay found his cell-phone car charger when he looked through his flooded Western Star. He was able to clean off the rust and find a spot that had cellular service. He called his dad who had evacuated to Lafayette, LA, to let him know they had survived. Anyone who was able to make a call was given lists of people to contact.

Back at the church, Katt and the others discovered the auto body shop next door to the church had working water and a hose they were able to use for taking makeshift showers.

On Thursday, Jay and Charles drove to Lafayette to borrow a car from Jay's dad. What should have been a five-hour roundtrip took much longer. They had to stop for gas at the only open station they could find, where they waited for three hours just to fill up.

Katt and the kids waited with the others at the church. There was no way to communicate with Jay while he was gone.

"I knew that if Jay was out there, he'd be coming back to get us. We just had to wait for him to come back," she said.

It was close to midnight when Jay made it back to the church. Rather than leaving right away, they decided to wait until morning. They had phone numbers to call to get help for others still at the church and in the town.

Friday morning - four days after the hurricane hit - they made their escape. They dropped their foster daughter off at a shelter in Gulfport, MS, as she did not want to leave the state with them.

They had been totally out of touch with their son, Damon, who works as a deck hand on a tugboat. Damon managed to get a ride as far as Pearlington, MS, where his parents' original home had been. Katt's mom, along with other family, lived there and all had lost their homes as well.

Damon borrowed a bicycle and rode the 18 miles to Bay St. Louis, arriving at the church just hours after Jay and the family had left. Finally reaching them on the phone, everyone cried with relief.

They had lost everything but each other - no pictures, no knick-knacks, not a stick of furniture, not a pot or pan or spoon. Their houses wrecked. Their cars totaled. Jay's truck wasn't salvageable after being in six feet of floodwater.

Overnight they were homeless and, at least temporarily, unemployed.

From the time they left Bay St. Louis, they bounced around staying for a few days with family members in Louisiana and elsewhere, ultimately ending up spending a couple of weeks at a Christian Retreat in Panama City Beach, FL.

On Oct. 15, they were called at the retreat - their FEMA camper had been delivered to the church. There were already hookups in place at church.

That was OK with Jay. He couldn't think of putting the trailer next to their condemned home.

Instead of a five-bedroom house, they now live in an eight-foot by 31-foot trailer with a slide-out for the sofa and table - a luxury in terms of FEMA-provided trailers. The girls sleep on bunk beds. There's not any extra space. They store whatever they can under the camper. But, they're not complaining.

"I thank God I have a roof over my head," Katt said.

For a long time, they had to drive 40 minutes just to get supplies. Then Wal-Mart reopened, first under a tent, later in a building - but on a smaller scale.

"It's more like a Sam's Club, with stuff put out on pallets instead of on shelves," Jay said.

But, little by little, businesses are starting to come back.     

Sonic reopened a while ago, and Wendy's reopened in late January. They only allow 25 people in at a time, so people wait in line to enter two by two. And the hours are limited, but at least they're open.

The Hostys were very fortunate. They had flood insurance on both of their houses. Their cars were a total loss - they only had liability insurance. Out of work for two months, Jay insisted things could have been much worse.

"I didn't have a job, but I didn't need a job. Insurance was going to pay off the mortgages and we didn't have any other debt to speak of," Jay said about his time off work. "One of the church groups set up a huge tent in town and served meals for free - three meals a day, three days a week," he said.

Even now, he doesn't stay gone for long anyway.

"I'm home every weekend - just like before the hurricane. My family comes first," Jay said.

Most help has come from church groups from around the country. They've been "adopted" by a church group from Hattiesburg, MS.

Their first little home in Pearlington can be salvaged - it shifted a little on its foundation, but is repairable. A group of Mennonites have already come and replaced the roof.   

If Jay and Katt buy the materials, a church group will donate the labor. Another church family sent Christmas gifts for the entire family, new clothes for the girls and new Bibles for every family member.

At Christmas, another church group put on an enormous Christmas dinner in a tent - handing out presents to the kids. Each of their girls won a bicycle. And the adults were given bath stuff.

"I really missed being able to take a relaxing bath. That simple gift meant the world to me," said Katt.

But what really got them all was a 3-foot tall, pre-lit tree given to them by "Miss Sue," also known as Sue Lynch who serves with Jay on the OOIDA Board of Directors.

"I was going to ignore Christmas this year. My heart just really wasn't in it," explained Katt. "But this tiny tree was just perfect to put in our living room. It also served as a night light for us. And she gave us an angel for the top of the tree. I think she's an angel. We'll keep this tree for always."

Jay took his family to Gatlinburg, TN, for a week after Christmas, just to give them a few days away in a hotel.

One of the hardest things to deal with was the fact that their license to take in foster children had been suspended.

"After 17 years as foster parents, it (broke) my heart not to be able to have my foster kids," Katt said.

Always looking for a bright spot, Katt tries to keep a positive attitude.

"I'm trying to stop seeing the past and look toward better things. I tell the girls they're getting new beds and ask them what kind of rooms they want," she said.

Jay insists that they won't rebuild on the same spot as their condemned house.

"I want to look at property north of I-10 (about 20 minutes from where they were). Just that short distance could be the difference for the really serious water if we have another storm like this one," Jay said.

It's been more than six months since the hurricane hit. It seems that most of the assistance has come from places other than the government.

"For the community as a whole, mostly churches and Christians are doing the helping and rebuilding," Jay said. "This should open people's eyes to Jesus working through people."

Ongoing assistance is coming from churches from Alabama, Indiana, California and Oregon. And those are just the ones he knows about.

"There are still people just getting campers, or are still waiting on them," Jay said.

For the Hostys, life has hit a somewhat regular routine. The children are back in school. Katt is working as a dog groomer's assistant. Jay is back on the road - driving his new truck.

And tonight, Katt ends her day quietly. Her husband Jay is on the road. Damon is working odd jobs. Brianna, Neva and Selena are sleeping peacefully in their beds.

She looks around her FEMA-provided trailer and wonders how much longer it will be before her family will live in a home of their own - before they can be there for the foster kids who need them.

Suzanne Stempinski may be reached at wheelz624@aol.com.

Editor's note: Special thanks to Katt and Jay W. Hosty (and kids) for loaning us treasured photos and sharing their stories.