Sunday, December 11, 2005

Katrina victims demand 'right to return'

Katrina victims demand 'right to return'

By Michele Gershberg

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - With jazz music, prayer and offerings to the gods, hundreds of Hurricane Katrina survivors on Saturday demanded the government move faster to rebuild the city and provide evacuees with more disaster assistance.

Shouting "We're Back," protesters said they feared the city's poor would be shut out of reconstruction after being dispersed far across the United States since the storm.

City officials estimate more than 300,000 New Orleans residents have yet to return since Katrina flooded the city, reducing entire neighborhoods to a rubble-strewn wasteland.

In one of the largest rallies in New Orleans since the hurricane, survivors marched to City Hall from Congo Square, a centuries-old meeting place where African slaves once gathered to trade, play music and dance.

African drummers and a brass band dubbed the "Soul Rebels" set the carnival-like tone, while a tribal priest made an offering of rum and watermelon.

"I lived in my house for 45 years -- my mother died and left it to me," said Gloria Brown, 70, an evacuee living in San Francisco. "I swam seven blocks in filthy water with my dog Queenie to survive. I want to come back but I can't pay for it."

The federal government is providing varying amounts of assistance to evacuees to cover temporary housing and living expenses. But some evacuees said they have not yet received any money.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has held meetings with evacuees living in places like Alabama or Mississippi to gather their ideas about how to rebuild the city. City and state officials have yet to determine how to rebuild a faulty levee system that created the flooding, a key decision for insurers and lenders financing the reconstruction.

Some hurricane evacuees said there should be less talk and more action.

"Right now they're treating us like refugees," said Mervin Lucas. "They're worried about health in Afghanistan, the cold in Pakistan. They're giving folks in Iraq better things than they're giving us."

Rally organizers accused the city of discriminating against black residents by moving slowly on rebuilding, particularly in low-income areas that were hardest hit, after failing to rescue them quickly in the days following the storm.

"It's no secret the rich white folks uptown don't want us back," said Malcolm Suber, a protest leader with the grass-roots People's Hurricane Relief Fund. "This government left us to starve and to die."

For others, the protest provided a chance to reunite with friends last seen before Katrina hit the city on August 29.

"If I didn't come today, I wouldn't know if he was alive or dead," said a tearful George Quinn, embracing his friend Mervin Lucas in the square. Quinn's home in the flooded Lower Ninth Ward was destroyed. He is living in Arlington, Texas, while he waits for insurance money to rebuild.