Shortly after Michel Castaneda and her daughters, Kerri, 12, Meghan, 16, Heather, 17, and Kayla, 18, moved to Cullman in August 2005, culture shock set in.

Everything was different.

"The food, the people, the accent," Michel said.

The Castanedas, who landed in Cullman as evacuees from Slidell, La., after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, agree there are times when they miss certain elements of the Louisiana culture, like the availability of fresh crawfish and other food seasoned with what Heather called "that New Orleans pizzazz." They also said they have grown to love Cullman, and don't plan on leaving any time soon.

In the past year, the girls have enrolled in Cullman City Schools and Michel graduated this month from Wallace State Community College's nursing program. They said the curriculums of Wallace State and the city school system were more difficult than what they were accustomed to, but local students, teachers and residents helped make the transition easier.

"People are a lot more friendly here," Kayla said. "They're more accepting of other people."

After leaving Slidell, the Castanedas took shelter at Best Western in Cullman, where they lived for about six weeks in a three-room hotel suite with Michel's former husband, his wife and their five children. The Castanedas now live rent-free in a 100-year-old refurbished house off Birmingham Street owned by Eddie Canaday.

Sheila Munger, a landscaper for Best Western in Cullman, said she was surprised to arrive at work early in one morning to find a hotel full of hurricane evacuees.

"The parking lot was full," she said. "It was just spooky. The thought was just 'gosh, they're here.'"

Munger and her husband, Matt, became acquainted with the Castanedas when they were staying at the hotel. Troubled by television images of New Orleans and other areas of Louisiana after Katrina made landfall, Sheila said she and others wanted to help. The Mungers and Castanedas have remained in touch since the disaster.

"Once she let us know what her needs were, the people in Cullman just blew me away," Sheila said. "It just doesn't seem like it has been a year. I tell them all the time, they can't go back now."

Michel said Slidell residents were placed under an order to evacuate when meteorologists determined Katrina had reached category 5 status and was heading directly for New Orleans.

"We were asked to evacuate when they knew it was going to be a category 5, so we just started calling hotels," she said. "Cullman was where it was."

Many south Alabama hotels had already filled to capacity, but the Castanedas found a vacancy at Best Western. They said they did not encounter looting, fighting or other criminal activity on the 11-hour drive from Slidell to Cullman. In normal driving conditions, the drive can be made in about five hours, Michel said.

Michel said she returned home several weeks after the hurricane made landfall and discovered the duplex she was renting sustained little damage, other than downed trees nearby.

The Castanedas agreed they're happy to call Cullman home, and though there are times when they want to return to Slidell, they've settled in and have adjusted well during the past year with the help of many generous local residents.

Michel said she believes God brought her to Cullman.

"I really like it here, and I don't know what lies ahead down the road," she said. "It was a disaster for so many people, but for me it turned out to be a blessing."

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