Evacuees reluctant to leave Md., return to La.

Katrina victims compelled to take `Road Home' aid

September 01, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,Sun Reporter

Keri and Chris Gallardo spent the past two years making Maryland feel like home.

After the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina forced them from Greater New Orleans, the couple settled in Linthicum and sent their two older children to Anne Arundel County public schools.

Keri became a teacher's assistant in her 10-year-old daughter's elementary school. The kids joined community soccer and softball leagues. They named their third child - a "rainbow after the storm," they say - Camden, in tribute to Baltimore. They rented a bungalow on a quiet street and thought they would spend many years here.

This summer was supposed to be a time to enjoy the family's slow and tentative return to normality and peace. Instead, Katrina's second anniversary has marked another time of upheaval for the Gallardos.

They are among more than 184,000 families across the country who have applied - some of them, like the Gallardos, grudgingly - to return to New Orleans through a Louisiana-run reconstruction program that offers them as much as $150,000 to rebuild in a city that doesn't resemble the place they knew.

Roughly 1,500 families told state officials they planned to resettle in Maryland after Katrina, but now many find themselves wrestling with a tough choice: stay in a state where they have built new lives and cultivated new friends, or move back to a home that holds much nostalgia but is resource-strapped and still struggles to offer basic services.

For the Gallardos, the choice to leave Maryland next year has been driven by financial pressures: They need to pay off the remaining $42,000 on their storm-damaged home, and are paying $1,200 a month in rent.

"My daughter has friends here. We have neighbors here who are friendly. My son is in community college here and doesn't want to leave; there is nothing for us left in New Orleans," Keri Gallardo, 44, said.

At the height of the migration from the Gulf Coast, about 3,500 families fled to Maryland, registering more than 800 students in public schools. "Katrina's kids" were scattered through 22 of the state's 24 public school systems, with Montgomery, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties together serving more than a third of the displaced student population, and another 100 or so students settling in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County schools. Several dozen more went to Catholic and other private schools. The state made headlines as school districts together raised about $1.3 million in aid for evacuee families.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which coordinated resettlement and outreach efforts for evacuees, went door to door providing counseling and helped people with everything from finding jobs to riding the light rail system. Aid to the evacuees dissolved by January, and the state turned to churches and faith-based organizations to run support groups, said Laura Copeland, director of disaster behavioral health services. The families moved often and dispersed, Copeland said, making it difficult for the state to keep tabs on how many of them remain today.

"Our goal was to take them from being victims to citizens of Maryland," Copeland said. "They're all over the area, and, frankly, we're not quite sure how many of them are here still."

Democratic political leaders have used the anniversary to renew criticism of the Bush administration's handling of recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast. Most recently, their complaints have centered on Louisiana's Road Home program, which provides rebuilding grants to homeowners who weren't fully covered under their storm insurance. The Road Home program has about $8.1 billion available to help more than 119,000 residents rebuild, Road Home spokeswoman Gentry Brann said. But the program has been criticized for a slow and stingy distribution of money that will have helped only 50,000 applicants by the end of this month, despite having billions of dollars at its disposal.

"The relocation process has not been an easy transition for most people," said Rice University history professor Douglas Brinkley, a vocal critic of the recovery effort and author of The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

"Just as some of them are resettling in new cities, they're luring people to come back. But how can you move back when there's no electricity, pest control, schools, hospitals? How do you ask a family to come back to neighborhoods like that?" Brinkley said.

When the Gallardos went to New Orleans last month to sign up for the Road Home program, they were ambivalent about the decision they had made. Returning home was accompanied by the same over-the-telephone bickering and red-tape headaches that beset many evacuees' initial negotiations for FEMA aid. They haggled for months over the price of their house, a two-story, four-bedroom home with an elevator that had been appraised before the storm at nearly $180,000. They got $150,000.

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