Finding shelter, hope in Maryland

Katrina's Wake

September 09, 2005|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,SUN STAFF

A restaurant captain maneuvers the streets of an unfamiliar city - Baltimore - in search of a job, the memory of serving guests in the French Quarter, water rising around him, still fresh in his mind.

A mother sits in an Owings Mills home with her 2-year-old son, unsure of what to say when he asks when they can go home, if there is even a home to go back to.

A former Baltimorean waits in the Central Maryland Red Cross headquarters at a loss for words when describing the destroyed city he says saved his life.

They are here now, sleeping in extra rooms and on couches, on floors and in basements, living on the generosity and care of family and friends.

Unlike other states that have seen thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors stream across their borders, Maryland officials don't expect a huge influx of people. Maryland is not among the 21 states on a federal standby list for evacuees. Still, officials say several hundred displaced residents have arrived, most living with family and friends, a handful finding temporary housing in motels and strangers' houses with the help of the Red Cross, churches and local agencies.

Some are happy to be here. Others vow to return to New Orleans, already frustrated by bureaucratic delays and difficulties.

A few realize they can't return to what had become their home. They will move on, or at least try to move on, with the scraps of former lives they brought with them.

And so Andy Titlebaum, a man who once belonged to a crew known as the "French Quarter rats," hits the streets, resume in hand. There he was yesterday, wearing the same uniform he wore as a fine-dining captain in New Orleans, hoping to find a new job and begin anew.

"It's really tough to start a life all over again," said Titlebaum, 46, who is living with his sister in Federal Hill. "There is no city like New Orleans. I really felt like I found a home there. But you got to move on. It's a matter of survival."

Most of the new arrivals say they feel welcome here. Schools have opened their doors, even waiving entrance requirements. The Red Cross has trained extra volunteers, fielding inquiries about how to fill prescriptions and get vouchers. Companies and individuals have donated clothes and money, food and supplies.

Baltimore City officials offered temporary shelter in the Clarence H. Du Burns Arena in Canton, but with no takers, they shifted plans yesterday and are now offering health and social services for displaced residents from the Gulf Coast states.

James H. Winfield, a casework manager for the American Red Cross of Central Maryland, said about 80 percent of the nearly 200 evacuees the agency has seen this week were staying with family members or friends. Most don't have flood insurance and brought little with them.

Despite the raw reality that it will be months before New Orleans and some surrounding areas are habitable, many Hurricane Katrina survivors say theirs is a temporary stay.

"At this point most of them are looking to go back home as soon as possible," Winfield said. "I don't think many of them are being realistic, considering the conditions of New Orleans."

Paul Payne is one of them. The frustrated New Orleans native came to the Red Cross headquarters yesterday hoping for help in getting a Maryland driver's license. No such luck.

The 52-year-old self-employed handyman had a job interview lined up but needed a Maryland driver's license. But the Motor Vehicle Administration turned him down because he didn't have his birth certificate, which was stuffed in a drawer somewhere in his water-logged New Orleans apartment. He couldn't get a new title and registration for his truck when he went to his financing company, either.

So yesterday he sat in his wife's family's house in Baltimore, vowing to go home. "I was going to stay here but not now," Payne said. "I'm about to take a chance and drive back to New Orleans some time next week. I'm going to get some stuff. But then I'm thinking, I might not come back. I don't think I want to live in Maryland."

For many, the hurricane has split families indefinitely.

Donna Michael Cohen and her two young children are staying with her cousin in Owings Mills while her husband is returning to work in Louisiana.

Before the hurricane struck, Cohen and the children fled, but her husband remained behind to batten down the family's ranch-style home, less than a mile from Lake Pontchartrain.

After the storm passed and the floods came, he rescued several neighbors in a kayak and hitchhiked to Baton Rouge, where Cohen picked him up for the drive to Maryland.

But he's already set to return to Baton Rouge to work out of his law firm's satellite office and plans on visiting the family on weekends.

"I just don't want to be separated from him," said Cohen, who grew up in Towson. "That's the hardest for me."

She wiped tears as she pondered her family's uncertain future. "After I wear out my welcome here, where do I go?" she said.

Artis Silver, a home improvement contractor, knows what he has to do.

The 48-year-old former Baltimore resident left for New Orleans 15 years ago. He was a wreck when he left, he says, deeply depressed after his wife's death, waking up some nights drunk at her gravesite.

New Orleans, he says, saved his life, his soul.

"New Orleans changed my life," Silver said Wednesday at the Red Cross office. "In New Orleans, it's like a parade every day, everybody waving hello. If you were feeling really, really bad, you can walk down Bourbon Street and feel better.

"And now it's all gone."

Silver said he will live with relatives in Baltimore for a short time, get back on his feet and then head south.

"I rebuild," he said. "I want to be right on the front line. New Orleans saved me. Now I'm going to help save it."

Sun staff writers Josh Mitchell and Gus Sentementes contributed to this article.

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