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Evacuees reluctant to leave Md., return to La.

The Baltimore Sun

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.

On top of that, they were demoralized to see their neighborhood still reeling, still rotting, Keri Gallardo said.

Most of the neighbors in her St. Bernard Parish community had not returned. Homes where her children used to play are now moldy shells on weedy lots. According to the Louisiana Recovery Authority, only 16,000 of the 45,000 people who once lived in the parish have returned; in the New Orleans metropolitan area, about two-thirds of the population has ventured back.

Only three schools in the parish have reopened. The local hospital and movie theater are closed, she said, along with the nearby Wal-Mart and Kmart. Parts of the Gallardos' neighborhood near Chalmette still struggle with spotty phone and cable service.

"This is what we have to go back to?" Keri Gallardo said, sitting on her Linthicum home's front porch, sipping New Orleans coffee. She brought back the coffee, bags of which she keeps packed away in the freezer, along with bottles of cayenne pepper and bay leaves, as reminders of home.

Though doubts linger, the Gallardos are preparing to leave next summer, because the family cannot afford to refuse the Road Home money, Keri Gallardo said.

"We're still paying a $42,000 mortgage on our shell of a home with a hole in the roof, and we're paying rent here," she said. "We've gone through our savings. We couldn't say no to the money."

She said the decision to leave Maryland will be hardest on her two eldest children: C.J., 19, and Kelli, 10. After he finished his senior year at North County High School in Glen Burnie last year, C.J. planned to go back to New Orleans for college. But he didn't like what he saw. The small community college he wanted to attend was crowded and didn't have enough dorms for students. Friends, whom he had expected to join him in college, didn't, because they had dropped out of high school after the storm.

"It's not the same place," he said. So, he came back to Maryland and began classes at Anne Arundel Community College. He joined a community softball league with some friends. And even as his parents and two younger siblings plan to return home next year, he says he will stay here, because "people are nice here. Maryland feels like home now."

A fifth-grader at Linthicum Elementary, Kelli is a voracious reader whose favorite book this week is about dolphins. In the past year, she has become a writer, too, authoring a short story on the family's escape from the storm in August 2005.

She remembers everything. Sleeping in a jailhouse shelter, wearing prisoners' uniforms for days because they were the only dry clothes available. She remembers fleeing to Baton Rouge and sleeping on cardboard boxes until a policeman stopped to help with directions to a shelter, and with jambalaya and sandwiches in the trunk of his car.

"I felt pretty sad," she said. "You can't forget something this big."

But she remembers the good, too. When the family came to Linthicum in September 2005, the Gallardos were the center of a community outpouring. Parents and staff from Kelli's school, Linthicum Elementary, helped them find the three-bedroom home they live in now. They painted rooms in varying shades of yellow, upgraded the plumbing, stocked the kitchen with pots and pans, and the living room with sofas and chairs. The front porch was decorated with a bright orange plastic pumpkin, a scarecrow and yellow-and-red mums. Kelli said her bedroom was decorated with hula hoops and a bookshelf packed with Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume books.

"They stood up for us," Kelli said. "I don't want to leave, because of soccer, because of friends. I like how everybody was nice."

This year, she is planning to play the clarinet in her school band, just as she did last year. She's in a community soccer league and wants to add basketball and lacrosse to her roster.

Keri Gallardo is encouraging her daughter to do as much as she can before they leave.

"This storm taught us to be so grateful about the simple things," Gallardo said. "Family. Being able to play in a park. Watching my baby try to crawl. In the end, these are the things that really matter."

ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

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