Hurricane Victims Demand More Help

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 9, 2006

They came to Washington yesterday from temporary housing, from apartments in Houston, hotel rooms in Dallas and spare bedrooms in cousins' homes.

They came to say that the only place they really want to go is home.

About 400 survivors of hurricane Katrina arrived in the nation's capital for two days of rallies, protests and meetings with lawmakers about the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

"We want all of New Orleans rebuilt, not just parts," said Dorothy Stukes, founder of the Katrina Survivors Association, which coordinated the events. "And we don't want a Chocolate City. We want a Gumbo City, a city that has a little bit of everything in it."

Stukes rode overnight in the caravan of buses organized to bring the voices of New Orleans to Capitol Hill. The group marched up Independence Avenue, chanting "Where is the money?" and singing "This little neighborhood of mine, I'm gonna let it shine," parting the lunchtime crowd of Capitol Hill staffers. One man in a trench coat stepped aside and asked another, "Who are these people?" When a woman told him, "We're from New Orleans, sir," the man nodded his head and quietly began to clap for the procession.

With coordination from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, the group rallied in a Cannon House caucus room, where Democratic leaders heard stories of struggles with Federal Emergency Management Agency representatives, the paperwork nightmare that comes with insurance claims and the ongoing battle to simply return home.

"I bought my house in 1981, paid it off by 2003. I put two kids through college. I worked my whole life as a schoolteacher," said Kemberly Samuels, 52, whose home in New Orleans's Ninth Ward was ruined by five feet of standing water. But her time in the Astrodome, then in a church, then in search for a Houston apartment that would take her housing voucher "was the most humiliating time of my life."

Stories such as hers prompted a panel of Democratic members of Congress to respond that they plan to hold the administration accountable for the treatment of the region since Katrina and then Rita hit.

"Really, just to be plain about it, this is a scandal," Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said to a standing ovation.

The crowd, many of them working-class New Orleanians whose families have lived there for generations, thundered when Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) called the lack of progress in rebuilding less-affluent neighborhoods "a policy of ethnic cleansing by inaction."

After the Capitol Hill session, some in the group had a private meeting with R. David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, then held a candlelight vigil at the White House.

Events continue today with a 10 a.m. march from the Church of the Reformation at 212 E. Capitol St. to the Capitol and a 10:30 a.m. rally across from the Russell Senate Office Building. Then they hope to meet with members of Congress and with Donald E. Powell, President Bush's federal coordinator for Gulf Coast rebuilding.

"These people here in Washington are going to hear us," said Harvey Bender, 41, who grew up in East New Orleans and lost his job with the City Parks and Recreation Department when it laid off most of its workers because of hurricane damage. "We're American citizens, we pay taxes, and we need a little bit of help from our country now."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company