ORLANDO, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS)--Two years after Hurricane Katrina drove Michelle Castillo, her two children and elderly father from New Orleans with nothing left but a couple bags of clothes, the family has moved past the day-to-day struggle of surviving and moved into the day-to-day business of living in their adoptive home of Orlando, Fla.
"I won't say we're well-to-do, but we can breathe easier. We have what I consider a 'normal' life," the 43-year-old single mother says with obvious relief. "For a long time I didn't think I'd ever be able to say that again, but we never gave up, and here it is."
Castillo, who supports her family with the help of her father's modest retirement pension, landed in Orlando shortly after they evacuated the city on Aug. 28, 2005. Like many of those displaced from New Orleans, she struggled to land on her feet: She could barely make ends meet in the first job she found as a service representative for a debt consolidation company, her father's declining health took a serious turn for the worse, her kids had difficulties enrolling in school because of lost records and endless calls to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for rental assistance and insurance payments were mostly met by a spirit-crushing, bureaucratic blockade.
Today, though, Castillo's prospects are much improved: FEMA coughed up $3,600 to cover three months' rent a year after she made the application; her father, New Orleans jazz scene fixture Allen Wallace, has returned to better health; and worries about her children--Alexandra, 15, and Giovanni, 14--are now focused on her daughter's desire to learn to drive and her son's performances in the school chorus. Castillo also received a promotion at her job and now oversees her company's human resource department and its three dozen employees for a pre-tax salary around $42,000 a year and health benefits, which keeps the family afloat.
Even if New Orleans manages to fully bounce back, the Castillo family is unlikely to ever again call it home. Though Castillo's children have rebounded from the post-storm emotional roller coaster and made new friends, they say they want to join their aunt and cousins, who resettled in Katy, Texas, rather than return to their old neighborhood that remains a virtual ghost town.
"For them it's all about being near the family, their cousins, something familiar and comforting," Castillo says. "And after everything we've been through, one can hardly consider that an unreasonable desire."
Castillo's comments reflect a disturbing reality that faces tens of thousands of families along the Gulf Coast for whom life has yet to return to normal.
"It's one tragedy after another," says Avis Jones-DeWeever, study director for the Washington-based Institute for Women's Policy Research, which has completed a multi-year three-part research series on Gulf Coast women after the storm. "People came back because of a real love for New Orleans and they're pretty much left to deal with it alone."
Evacuees, predominantly women and the elderly, still inhabit over 75,000 FEMA trailers in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. Federal officials decided to tear down most of the 5,100 damaged public housing units in New Orleans. With the slow pace of rebuilding along the Gulf Coast, advocates believe it will take up to five years before adequate alternative housing is available.
In New Orleans, women especially are finding the job market battered, as the most vibrant industries, like construction, are traditionally male-dominated. Sufficient housing is scarce and expensive--rents are up 45 percent--and finding health care and child care is a struggle.
Single Mothers Hardest Hit
As a group, few population sectors have been hit as hard as single mothers.
Before Katrina, 56 percent of New Orleans families were headed by single mothers like Castillo, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research. Median earnings for single-parent families were $20,798 with over a third of those families living below the poverty level. Many of those who did not return relocated into states--Texas, Mississippi and other parts of Louisiana--that rank near the bottom in terms of poverty, health care access and education facilities for women.
"You've got people paying mortgages on houses they can't live in to protect their credit when they're not getting recovery money from insurance companies. You've got women struggling to get back in the work force who have no access to child care, not just because they can't afford it which is one thing, but because it simply is not there," Jones-DeWeever said.
Of the 183 child-care centers in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit only 92 have reopened their doors and six new facilities have been built after 2004, according to data from the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, a clearinghouse for New Orleans-related information. Recent reports note that while housing construction has continued, basic services such as schools, libraries, public transportation and child care are all operating at below 50 percent of their pre-storm capacities.
Over 20 percent of those back in New Orleans are not having their basic health care needs met, according to a July report from the Kaiser Family Foundation in Menlo Park, Calif. At the same time, 41 percent of city residents suffer from chronic conditions such as hypertension and diabetes.
Federal Response Not Enough
Federally funded programs have been too few, too slow and under-representative of the U.S. government's capabilities, observers like Jones-DeWeever have repeatedly charged.
"Simply put, the official Katrina response was, and continues to be, abysmal to the point of being an international embarrassment," she said. "People are not getting what they need to pull their lives back together and yet there is hope because you see these women battling the challenges, fighting to stay there."
On Katrina's second anniversary, women and families continue to rebuild the Gulf region but a lack of resources and support plagues their efforts. Many have failed to return to the type of normalcy that Castillo has carefully cobbled together.
Two years after she took her family out of their New Orleans home, Castillo remains confident she made the right choice to resettle in Florida. Any lingering doubts disappeared earlier this month when the family drove through the city on their way to visit her sister.
"You see some people working on their houses here and there, but outside the tourist areas it's scary. The grass is overgrown, hardly any people, and those there look almost like ghosts or interlopers who shouldn't be there. Most of the houses haven't even been touched," she says of their drive through their old New Orleans East neighborhood.
"Basically, I stayed in New Orleans long enough to get a cup of coffee, buy some crawfish and crab that you can't find in Florida, and then just kept right on driving."
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Tampa, Fla., 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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