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Louisiana still home in hearts of relocated Katrina victims

| Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013, 10:46 p.m.

A piece of artwork in the lobby of Big Easy Animal Hospital in Lawrenceville shows one of the French Quarter's iconic lampposts with a question scrawled around it: “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?”

The clinic's owner, Dr. Aileen Ruiz, does. She's one of about 500 Gulf Coast residents who fled to Western Pennsylvania after Hurricane Katrina displaced 1.5 million people in August 2005.

Social service agencies estimate about 100 Katrina victims stayed in Western Pennsylvania to rebuild their lives.

“When I sit back and think about it, it's crazy,” said Ruiz, 39, of Lawrenceville.

She fell in love with New Orleans during an internship and planned to live there forever.

“The music, the food. It's really fun,” she said.

The night before Katrina hit, Ruiz couldn't sleep. She had weathered Hurricane Andrew years before in Miami but sensed this would be worse. She packed a bag of clothes, grabbed her two dogs and cat, and hit the road.

It took eight hours just to get out of Louisiana. Ruiz made it to a friend's house in Pittsburgh, where she slept. When she awoke to the TV coverage, the levees had broken and people stood on roofs, awaiting rescue.

Ruiz returned to New Orleans when the water receded. She and other veterinarians rescued cats, dogs and birds.

Though the storm spared her apartment, the clinic was gone. Ruiz knew she would have to start over somewhere.

“I thought I'd like to try living up north,” she said. “Since then, I've discovered camping, whitewater rafting, skiing.”

Ruiz opened her business in July 2010. Some of her family has moved here. She visits New Orleans, sometimes twice a year, and hopes to retire there.

“I feel like I have two homes,” she said. “It's where your heart's at.”

Several charities assisted Katrina refugees. Fran Lewis, supervisor of social services for the Salvation Army of Western Pennsylvania, remembers people seeking help finding family back home.

“The fear of the unknown was awful,” she said. “... Who's living? What will they find once they get there?”

Lewis stayed in touch with some people who remain here. “You can see it in their eyes — their hearts still miss New Orleans.”

Donna Jean Raines, 64, of Butler, finds improvement each time she returns to her hometown of Metairie, La.

“The people who are helping rebuild are wonderful,” she said. “With all the horrible things that happened, there is so much warmth and love in my city — and it is still my city.”

Though 29 people in Metairie died in the storm, Raines escaped harm by staying with a friend a few miles away. Within weeks she flew to Pittsburgh to be with family.

“I can understand why it's all over the news, but so many horrible things go on, Katrina should be laid to rest now,” she said.

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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