(WOMENSENEWS)--Michelle Castillo is in a new state of shock.
Seven weeks after fleeing New Orleans with her two children and ailing father, the 41-year-old single mother returned to the family's Ninth Ward home to find that virtually nothing remains of the life they left behind.
She drove into New Orleans on Oct. 27 in the hours between the 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.
"It looked like the entire neighborhood was covered in volcano ash or scorch marks," Castillo says. "It all looked so lonely, and when I got 'home' it just wasn't my house anymore. I could hardly recognize it."
Castillo is among more than 500,000 residents of the Ninth Ward and adjacent parishes. These are the neighborhoods submerged by Hurricane Katrina where residents stood on rooftops waving at TV news cameras after the storm.
Castillo and her family fled New Orleans before the hurricane on Aug. 29 and found refuge with family members in Orlando, Fla., avoiding the worst phase of the disaster. But since then, she has struggled with all that being displaced can mean.
It wasn't until she stepped into the mold-infected rooms of her former house, however, that the magnitude of her loss truly hit home.
"I was in denial," she says sadly. "I kept saying, 'Oh, there will only have been a little bit of water' and honestly thought we'd be able to recover most of our things. I couldn't have been more wrong."
After a prolonged silence, she finds her voice again, Castillo describes walls covered with black mold, a waterline along the walls near the tops of the windows and three inches of water in two bedrooms almost eight weeks after the flood.
'Useless Pieces of Wood'
A dining room set passed down from her grandmother to her mother and then to her lay in ruins. "I went to pick up one of the chairs and it just fell apart in my hands. All our family gatherings took place on that table and those chairs, so many good memories, and now it's just useless pieces of wood."
Before leaving, Castillo salvaged three garbage bags of possessions. These including the 25th anniversary plate she and her siblings bought for their parents, her father's two prized saxophones, a hand drill, her son Giovanni's favorite football and a few framed family photos that were positioned high enough up to survive the deluge.
"Almost everything has some damage, but we're hoping to get the saxophones professionally cleaned and the pictures digitally restored," she says of the dismal haul.
Until her visit, the family was unsure about resettling in Orlando. Now Castillo is firm about not going back to New Orleans, the college she was attending part-time and her temporary job as a dispatcher for an alarm monitoring firm.
"The place has lost its shine, its magic, for me," she says. "I will not go back."
For now the family is staying in an Orlando house they rented with the help of relatives and friends who banded together to provide the security deposit and first month's rent for October.
Orange County officials have indicated they will provide evacuated families with the equivalent of two months' rent. Castillo was delighted that the money came through in time to cover November and December.
Catholic Charities, based in Alexandria, Va., has also agreed to pay her January rent, as her claim with the Federal Emergency Management Agency has yet to be settled.
FEMA Paying Families Up to $26,200
Under current FEMA guidelines every family affected by Katrina is eligible for up to $26,200 that can be used to cover personal and medical expenses, rebuilding, moving, storage and transportation costs.
The FEMA Web site says Katrina-related applicants should hear from an inspector within 30 days after filing for assistance. Castillo initially filed her claim in the second week of September and since then she's been talking to FEMA call center representatives about where her claim stands.
"Every time I call I'm given a slightly different story as to when my claim will be settled," Castillo says. "They tell me eventually I will have to go back down to attend an inspection, though it may take up to another six weeks to schedule. If I am unable to obtain transportation to New Orleans, they will provide me with a bus ticket there, but not back to Florida."
FEMA officials say 827,993 housing damage inspections--65 percent of filed claims--have so far been completed by 3,800 field inspectors. The number of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama households that have applied as of this week is 2,131,729.
Diverting Disaster Relief Funds
On Oct. 28 the White House asked Congress to divert $17 billion from existing disaster relief funds set up to rebuild roads and bridges, rather than allocating new funds.
The White House pushed two emergency aid requests totalling $62.3 billion through Congress in the first 10 days after Katrina hit but without altering the protocols that govern spending of the money. As things stand, it will take months to release those funds for federal infrastructure projects such as rebuilding roads and renovating levees.
Money from these emergency requests is also slated for small business assistance, job training and housing relief for people such as Castillo, whose money goes through FEMA.
In the six weeks since approval of the aid requests, federal government officials have spent or signed contracts for about one quarter of the money.
"It's such a small percentage that it's really disappointing," Denise Bottcher, a spokesperson for Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, told reporters earlier this week. The governor's office, she added, has not been given details concerning where the money has been spent.
Women's eNews raised the issue with Barbara Ellis, a Washington-based FEMA spokesperson, informing her that Castillo had not heard from an inspector more than a month after filing her claim.
"We are asking people to be patient," she responded. "Continue to call the help line with any problems or concerns and keep us up to date on their contact information."
But it's hard for Castillo to keep being patient. The family's new home has some beds, a couch and a coffee table, but otherwise it's unfurnished.
Castillo's 67-year-old father Allen Wallace has monthly medical expenses. The Florida Veterans Administration is helping there, by getting his medical supply costs down to $47 for a three-month supply. The two children, Alexandra, 12, and Giovanni, 11, also need clothing and school supplies.
"Every day brings expenses," Castillo says, "and we do not want to be relying on other people to cover them."
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Buffalo, N.Y., who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia.
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