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Mom and daughter survivors

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Joy Velez and her 18-year-old daughter, Krystal, look forward to a new home next year. They say they’re the luckiest people in the world because they survive.

Covington, La. – After losing her home, her business and her school bus to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans’ St. Bernard Parish, Joy Velez is unabashedly upbeat.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Velez, taking an atypical break from her job of running Habitat’s bustling Restore. “We will beat substandard housing. We will.”

Velez and her 18-year-old daughter, Krystal, are on the waiting list for a house at the Habitat affiliate of St. Tammany West. Until their home is built sometime in 2008, they’ll remain in the FEMA trailer they got after spending the first 80 post-Katrina days in Grenada, Miss.

“I call Grenada a town of angels,” said Krystal. “When my dad and I went to Wal-mart to get some food, a woman behind us in line found out we were from New Orleans and said, ‘Don’t worry about the money. I’m paying for your groceries.’ ”

“The people there couldn’t have been any nicer to us,” added her mom.

Velez, 49, drove a bus for St. Bernard Parish and managed a VFW post in nearby Arabi that lost 114 members in the storm.

“We went to 80 funerals after the storm,” Velez said. “So, for me, it’s like we’re the luckiest people in the world.

“The storm devastated me, but it also brought a lot to me,” she said. “I wouldn’t say I want to do it again, but it taught me a lot about people and about life itself.”

After Katrina, Krystal was forced to spend her junior year at Mandeville’s Fountainbleu High School, where the twirling team took her under their collective wing and helped her feel less isolated.

“It was hard for her,” Velez said. “She cried every day, but she had to go to school – no ifs, ands or buts about it. In the long run, it just made her stronger.”

Krystal, who became a featured twirler at Fountainbleu, returned to the reopened Chalmette High School for her senior year and graduated with all her old friends. This month she starts her coursework at McNeese State University in Lake Charles.

And Joy Velez, a no-nonsense native of Queens, N.Y., will carry on at Habitat’s Covington Restore, where every employee is a future homeowner.

“We’re building homes with this money,” Velez said. “This is not salaries being wasted or people having parties. Every dime that comes out of this store goes right back into building a house.

“It’s so good to be around people who have a mission.”