Hurricane evacuees from Louisiana told federal and state officials at forums across the South on Saturday that what they want most when their state is rebuilt are affordable housing, better schools and stronger levees.
Some evacuees at the “Louisiana Speaks” forums also worried that officials have no real plans to restore certain areas, such as New Orleans’ impoverished Lower 9th Ward.
“This (forum) is a good idea,” Tereece Johnson, 40, whose mother and aunt lived in the 9th Ward and want to return there, said at the event held in Atlanta. “But is it going to accomplish something? I can’t say.”
Most of the 30 forums — sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Louisiana Recovery Authority — were held in Louisiana. Six were held in Atlanta, Houston and four other cities where tens of thousands of Louisiana residents fled.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated South Louisiana, destroying about 217,000 homes and 18,000 businesses and causing $25 billion in insured losses. The state expects roughly $10 billion in federal funding for rebuilding, and Saturday’s forums are part of a planning process in figuring out how to best use that money, state officials said.
Input from Saturday’s meetings is to be incorporated in a long-term regional plan for rebuilding South Louisiana.
Still searching for lost loved ones
But some were not yet ready to talk about the future.
“You’re talking about rebuilding?” shrieked Denise Herbert, 47, momentarily silencing about 100 people gathered at a forum in Atlanta.
“I want somebody to tell me where my mother is now!” said Herbert, referring to 82-year-old Ethel Anna Herbert, who went missing more than five months ago.
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, who was at the Atlanta forum, talked to Herbert and other evacuees, who talked about immediate needs like rental assistance and help with mental anguish.
“We have to do a combination of all of that. We have to take care of the immediate needs now and we have to work for the future. And that has to be done simultaneously.”
More than 1,300 Katrina-related deaths have been reported across five states, with 1,080 of those from Louisiana. As Herbert noted, more than 3,000 people are still officially unaccounted for.
Of the roughly 44,000 Louisiana residents evacuated to Georgia, mostly to the Atlanta area, only about 150 attended the forum.
Return hinges on housing
Many evacuees said the availability of affordable housing will make or break their decision to return to New Orleans.
“I’d like to go back — if I can get suitable housing,” said Joseph Howard, 48, a hospital housekeeping worker who had to flee his rented house in midtown New Orleans.
Rosalind Williams, 61, said she was paying about $500 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in Orleans Parish and would need a comparable rent in order to return.
“When will there be affordable housing?” she asked.
Housing and transportation were major issues for two dozen evacuees who attended the meeting held in Amite, La., a small community about 75 miles north of New Orleans.
“If we do decide to go back to New Orleans, will the rent go down?” said Sabrina Lee, a 25-year-old who can no longer afford the Uptown New Orleans place she rented before the storm.
However, the most pressing concern raised at the meetings in Louisiana involved flood control.
“Before we can make any decisions, we have to have answers on the levees,” said Antoinette Harrell-Miller, who is unsure whether she’ll return to the city.
In Houston, Gina Dupart said she was cautious about the value of Saturday’s forum.
“We made a decision to come here, to put our input in. We hope that it will be used to make the city better in the rebuilding process. We didn’t come here just to waste time,” said Dupart, 41, from New Orleans.