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Katrina Survivors Take Protest to Capitol Hill

Hundreds of survivors of Hurricane Katrina -- frustrated with the pace of reconstruction efforts in New Orleans and along the devastated Gulf Coast -- came to Washington this week (February 8-9), to press Congress for needed funds to rebuild their homes and their lives.

Protesters - some who traveled overnight in bus caravans to get here - stood in the cold outside the U.S. Capitol. They waved banners and carried posters with pictures of their destroyed homes. Dorothy Stukes, spokeswoman for the group that organized the event, demanded immediate financial help for all Gulf Coast victims. “We say cut the check now. The word is we are fired up and (we are not) taking no more. Cut the check, and cut the check now.”

Nearly six months after the hurricane devastated the Gulf Coast, residents complain that in some neighborhoods, the most basic cleanup has barely begun. Survivors are worried about housing for themselves and their families, and want the resources to rebuild.

From the podium, Senators Hilary Clinton, Harry Reid and Mary Landrieu echoed those thoughts. Clinton recalled her recent visit to the Gulf Coast. “And I talked to people who have lost everything and I thought to myself, 'what country am I in that the debris and the trash is just sitting there,” she said, “ that there isn't a plan to help people get back to where they live, get back on their feet, come back home?' Well, we are going to do everything that we can to get that gumbo back home.”

Clinton urged Katrina survivors to speak out and demand justice from their leaders. The importance of doing that is what moved retired New Orleans schoolteacher Dan Sykes to come to Washington. “I think that our government is letting New Orleans down, and it needs to be said and said in a very strong manner that we are decent people and we need the same justice as anyone as a citizen of the United States deserves,” he said.

Others are most frustrated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, which is running the recovery effort. Harvey Bender is one of thousands of Gulf Coast residents who want to rebuild, but are stranded in neighboring states waiting for promised reconstruction money or trailers to live in temporarily. The problem is most acute in Louisiana where 60 percent of the 90,000 requests for trailers have not been met.

“FEMA is garbage. I can run it (manage the recovery) better than FEMA can,” said Bender. “ We are survivors. All FEMA needed to do is give us what we needed and get out of the way.”

FEMA spokeswoman Nicole Andrews acknowledges that the trailers have been slow to reach the tens of thousands who need them. But, she says, getting enough trailers isn't the issue. “One problem is that the power company in Southern Louisiana has had a hard time bringing the power back on line,” Andrews said. “Another problem is that Mayor Nagin has shown great leadership in trying to get more trailers placed in and around New Orleans, but has faced some resistance from his own city council. And in other cases there is no place to put them, which seems ridiculous and we feel the same way, but we are looking to state and local leaders to help us out.“

Only eight of the 64 parishes in Louisiana will accept FEMA trailers. Nevertheless, the agency is placing about 1,000 trailers a day in the region and is also providing more than 700,000 families with temporary rental assistance. So evacuees are faced with a difficult choice: wait for FEMA trailers near their homes, or move their families somewhere else. As one New Orleans native put it: I simply want to go home and rebuild and I want to do it now