New Orleanians seek government help in rebuilding their city

By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated December 06, 2005 04:00 PM

As the body count from Hurricane Katrina still continues to rise – on Monday an elderly husband and wife were found dead in their New Orleans home by their caretaker, who had fled the city ahead of the storm – evacuees from the area are pleading for temporary housing and other assistance so they can help restore that city’s charms and return to the home they love.

They also say that race and class played a strong role in slowing the government’s response to Katrina. Speaking in Washington, D.C., before the House Government Reform Committee, Doreen Keeler said that everything needed to evacuate people would have been in place, if not for the fact that it was “poor African Americans who would be most affected” by the hurricane.

In an emotional and sometimes tearful hearing, reports the Associated Press, residents spoke of being cursed and threatened at gunpoint by police, and charged that their state and local governments abandoned them. Dyan French, who goes by the name “Mama D,” says that many evacuees will have to rely on makeshift fireplaces for heat as winter sets in.

On a local level, some 50 evacuees – most of them now in Memphis and Little Rock, Ark. – attended a Sunday Town Hall-style meeting whose purpose was to gather suggestions for rebuilding. The meeting is one of five across the South that the commission plans to conduct with evacuees before issuing a recommendation to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin by year’s end.

“We want to come back, we want to rebuild. But we’re not going to come back until we’re sure we’re going to get the help that’s needed,” 6th Ward resident Brenda Jacobs told the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, a group appointed by Nagin to make recommendations on how the city should be rebuilt in the wake of the Aug. 29 onslaught, AP reports.

Commission member Anthony Patton said the mayor will then advise Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who will ask Congress and President Bush for funding and legislation to implement the recommendations.

At the Memphis gathering, several evacuees said New Orleans should be rebuilt just as it was, though they noted that temporary housing remained the biggest challenge to the effort. “Bring people back, but where are they going to stay?” asked one speaker, Larry Johns.

Fellow member Anthony Patton cited the need for more jobs for New Orleanians as another major challenge. By Jan. 1, small businesses, which accounted for 85 percent of New Orleans’s employment base, will have lost up to 80,000 of the 115,000 jobs they provided, he said.

Meanwhile, further evidence of just how unprepared the Federal Emergency Management Agency was has come to light thanks to a special House committee investigating the government response to the storm. Last week Louisiana’s Gov. Blanco released more than 100,000 documents, which, taken together, provide vivid details of a system in disarray.

“This is unlike what we have seen before,” William Carwile, former FEMA top responder in Mississippi, said in an e-mail to officials at the agency’s headquarters about delivering body bags and refrigerated trucks to the badly damaged Hancock County, AP reports.

In a Sept. 1 exchange, FEMA regional response official Robert Fenton warned headquarters that the expected levels of water and ice being sent were far below what was needed. “If we get the quantities in your report tomorrow we will have serious riots,” Fenton wrote.

The next day, in another e-mail to headquarters about substandard levels of food, water and ice being distributed in Mississippi, Carwile reported, “System appears broken.”