By Juliette Terzieff
Sunday, October 2, 2005
Picking up the pieces after Hurricane Katrina's devastation hasn't been easy--or quick--for Michelle Castillo. Women's eNews will be following Castillo over the next few months to see how she rebuilds her life.
ORLANDO, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS)--Michelle Castillo's hands are full.
The 41-year-old single mother of two has a phone in one and a TV remote in the other.
Since losing her New Orleans home to Hurricane Katrina, she is on the phone tirelessly, struggling to keep track of her scattered family members. At the same time, she constantly monitors the TV for news of the devastation.
With her inner eye, she keeps a vigilant watch over her family.
"I'm ruined," Castillo sighs wearily, "just exhausted."
Castillo was working temporarily as a dispatcher for an alarm monitoring firm and attending college part time before the hurricane. She now has left her four-bedroom rental house in the middle-class neighborhood of Oak Island behind. It was covered in the flood waters and she believes that everything her family once owned, including their car, was destroyed.
The day before Katrina hit, Castillo fled New Orleans and drove with a friend to Greenville, Miss. There, her cousin, Isa Matthews, paid for them to rent a car and they drove east to Orlando.
At her cousin's pleasant house in Orlando, Castillo's family has found refuge. Her 11-year-old son Giovanni is bunking with his cousin, while her 12-year-old daughter Alexandra has taken the spare room. Castillo and her 67-year-old father, Allen Wallace, are staying at a nearby motel. Castillo said they could have stayed together in the house and slept on couches, but her father preferred the privacy of a motel. From cousin Isa's, the kids can catch the bus to their new school.
Castillo is a sturdy looking woman, of medium height, with a glowing smile and large brown eyes. She's obviously tired; it's visible in her face. At the same time, her wit is quick and at the ready. Even the hurricane is fodder for her sense of humor. The increasingly depressed economics of living in New Orleans had lately spurred thoughts of moving out.
"I guess God made the decision for me," she said.
She's a bit dishevelled now, and life's tiny luxuries have slipped away. Her pedicure is four weeks old and she's fallen behind on trips to the salon.
Castillo's father is a widower and musician with old school manners and charm. A New Orleans native who has played saxophone with the Neville Brothers Rock N Soul Troupe, Wallace has worked with Lewis Ford, former band director for Harry Connick, and is a perennial face on the New Orleans jazz scene.
Wallace, a diabetic with high blood pressure, finds walking difficult and relies on a cane. His days of making music in the studio are over, but he was still giving saxophone lessons to budding young musicians before the hurricane hit.
Now he sits for much of the day in front of the TV, wrapped in a little blanket while the cousin's dog, Fritz, sits at his feet. He says he will never go back.
Castillo feels the same. As long as the levees remain vulnerable, there is a chance that the floods could come again, and she says she can't face that thought.
Both Alexandra and Giovanni are well-behaved kids. Quiet before the storm, and more quiet now.
Alexandra is still a child but just beginning to lose the aura of innocence. She measures her response to a Women's eNews reporter whom she finds suddenly in her midst. When asked, she carefully says she likes computers and "grunge" music and clothes.
Giovanni has bushy hair and a round face that lights up when he smiles. A budding artist, he likes to download images from computer games on the Internet and then draw his own versions.
Castillo sighs as she contemplates the work that lies ahead, getting the family into a more normal routine.
"Every day is filled with phone calls, filling out forms and taking care of our immediate needs, and that is the only way I can do this," she says. "If I stopped to think about what it really means to have to start over again, I don't know if I could gather the strength to do it all."
Castillo still has no idea when or how much restitution she's eligible for from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover the family's losses.
According to FEMA printed material, families are eligible for up to $26,000 for destroyed possessions but that requires an inspector to visit the damaged site and for paperwork to get filed. She has no idea when anyone might be able to get to the family's old residence. So for now, she's scrambling to find housing, hoping that local Orange County officials will make good on a tentative offer to help her cover rental expenses for the first two months.
Castillo's cousin's house is comfortable, with high ceilings and large airy rooms that are nicely decorated in a style that cross-pollinates cultural influences. On one wall a large painting of African tribesmen hangs above stand-alone vases decorated with Mexican designs.
Compared to other evacuees, who by early October are still living in shelters and hotels and awaiting delivery of temporary mobile homes from FEMA, Castillo is relatively fortunate. She's got a family member who has gladly stepped forward to take her in.
But still, it's all temporary and she feels the pressure to put her family on firm footing.
Castillo feels her only tangible step forward came when she managed to get Giovanni and Alexandra into an area school two weeks ago. Classes at Odyessy Middle School have 25 students. In their old school in New Orleans, classes averaged 40 to 45 students.
"The kids love it," Castillo says. "They're not used to being in such small classes and the kids at the school know what happened in New Orleans and have been very friendly."
But the hurdles that remain--figuring out how to get her father's health insurance benefits transferred from one state agency to another, finding out what emergency benefits she will receive, finding a permanent home and looking for work--are immense.
In the third week of September, Castillo received one-time emergency funds of $1,265 from the Red Cross and $2,000 from FEMA. She waited in line for hours with thousands of other evacuees in a Red Cross shelter in downtown Orlando to register for emergency benefits.
But already, those funds are running out.
"We are not asking for handouts," Castillo says. "We want to get back to a normal life, reclaim our dignity. For decades we've paid our taxes, fulfilled our duty. Now we need a little help and the government needs to come through."
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist based in Buffalo, N.Y., who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and the London Sunday Times covering the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia.