- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 22, 2006

ATLANTA (AP) — Hurricane refugees from Louisiana told federal and state officials at forums across the South yesterday that what they want most when their state is rebuilt is affordable housing, better schools and stronger levees.

Some refugees 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, said at the event 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. Input from the forums will be incorporated in a long-term regional plan for rebuilding South Louisiana after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

But some were not yet ready to talk about the future.

“You’re talking about rebuilding?” said Denise Herbert, 47 at the forum in Atlanta. “I want somebody to tell me where my mother is now,” 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 Miss Herbert and other refugees, who wanted help with immediate needs such as rental assistance and counseling.

“We have to do a combination of all of that,” Mrs. Blanco said. “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.”

Many refugees 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.

Housing and transportation were major issues for two dozen refugees 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 yesterday’s forum.

“We made a decision to come here to put our input in. We hope that it will be used to make [New Orleans] better in the rebuilding process. We didn’t come here just to waste time,” said Miss Dupart, 41.

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