Biloxi man recounts family's harrowing escape from Katrina's water

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - By Trang Pham-Bui – bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - "This is the house next door. It's gone. Everything's gone," said Joseph Bui as he shared some pictures of his devastated east Biloxi neighborhood.

Bui's memories and pictures tell a powerful story of those frightening hours on August 29th, 2005. That's the day Katrina's waters kept rising and rising, drowning his neighbors' homes on First Street.

"Water get up to the roof," said Bui. "At that time, it's scary, real scary, but I don't want to make my wife and my son scary."

His four-year-old son, Vincent, and his wife Ngoc Minh didn't know how to swim. Bui had to quickly come up with an escape plan. His goal was to get his family to the Grand Casino parking garage, right across the street.

"I get the speaker wire, and I tied it together, about 70-foot, because I made the distance from here to the parking garage," said Bui.

Then, he remembered a turtle floatie he recently bought for his son.

"I blow it up, and then we escaped out the window. And I told him it was time to go swimming," he said. "I get the rope, and I tied her and him, connected together. And then I tied them to the float, so I can push the float across the street."

But halfway across, the rope got caught in some debris.

"So then the rope come back, I said, 'Oh oh, we're in trouble,'" he said.

"I told him to cut my rope. I can die. Just save our son, because if he tried to save all three of us, we could all die," said his wife. "I didn't know how to swim. We kept floating, and I passed out."

Fortunately, at that moment, two wood pallets came floating by. Bui put his son on one pallet and his wife on the other and pulled them. To make matters worse, Bui noticed his cousin stranded in some debris.

"And now at that time, I got to go rescue him, too," said Bui. "We came back into the house, and then I say 'Man, now we're in trouble'. We come back into the house. How are we going to get out?"

Bui tried putting the family on a mattress, but it soaked up too much water.  He found more wooden pallets and used them to get his family across the street. Several people who were already in the garage tossed them a rope.  All three were pulled to safety. His worries though, were far from over.

"The parking garage over there, it's shaking bad. We just scary too," he said.

Fearing that the garage would collapse, the Buis and 12 other storm evacuees huddled near the hotel lobby door. There, they rode out the storm for 36 hours.

"That time we had no food or nothing. The next day, the casino manager came and he opened the hotel door the lobby and everybody stayed in the lobby about a week," Bui said.

When it was safe, Bui surveyed the devastation. His neighbors' homes were blown to pieces or damaged beyond repair. Amazingly, the Bui's brick home, built in 1931, remained standing.

Five years later, Mr. Bui's neighborhood still looks empty. There used to be about 20 homes and businesses there, mostly owned by Vietnamese families. Today, only two families have returned and only a handful of businesses have come back.

Joseph Bui still operates his auto repair shop next to his rebuilt home. And his wife runs an alterations business on the first floor.

"Because I live here for a long, long time and the house is still here. So I have to fix it, and we come back," said Bui.

And they still live across from the huge concrete garage that gave them shelter and helped save their lives.

"It reminds me, and I say whenever a storm comes, doesn't matter what, you got to go," he said with a laugh.

Joseph Bui said after the storm, his son Vincent learned how to swim on his own. His wife, however, is still scared of being in the water.

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