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A Letter to the Speaker: Rebuilding is a Must, and the Time is Now

Dear Speaker Hastert,

I read your comments last week suggesting Congress should not attempt to rebuild another city like New Orleans, that such a move “doesn’t make sense” to you. Let me politely disagree. Congress must find the resolve to restore the Big Easy. [IMGCAP(1)]

Like so many families along the Gulf Coast, mine is in pain. As I finish writing Friday evening, I can’t find my Dad or three sisters who reside in New Orleans. The last we heard, they had told us not to worry, that they were certain they could survive Hurricane Katrina and what would follow. Now they are missing.

Many who did have the means to leave the area are now considered refugees. That’s right. America now has its own refugees milling about in despair in our own backyard. Many of them lost everything and have no place to go. These people are largely poor and have no 401(k) fund to dip into when times are bad. Some of them will never again be able to find affordable housing in the city if and when it is rebuilt. Please let us not forget them and their families. They, too, are Americans.

Scattered all across the Deep South — in shelters, hotels, motels, campsites or holed up with relatives, friends and even strangers — they have become a living embodiment of the faith we learned and took for granted as children in this great nation: “Hold on, help is on the way.”

As we listen to their pleas for help and such basic needs such as water, ice, medicine and food, we must remember that they are really calling on Congress to help them rebuild. After watching them wait days for the federal and state governments to deliver even such basics as clean, safe drinking water, we cannot let them wait any longer. Our duty is to help them restart their lives and rebuild their communities — turning the mud and grime into the foundation of a new beginning.

None of us will ever forget the images we have seen on TV. I cannot stop looking at the pictures because I am searching for answers that perhaps only Congress can provide. Why did it take so long for the government to respond? Why did some people get pulled out while others waited? Did anyone know about the threats to the vulnerable levee system? Hello, is anyone home?

The only answers I have are found in the soil. We folks down South are strong willed and strong in our faith. We want answers and the temptation to point fingers is strong, but I cannot bring myself to get too political now; my family is still missing.

Like most natives of the Gulf Coast, we’re not only faithful; we are also stubborn. When I called my Dad urging him to pack up and go, Lionel reminded me of his days in the Korean War.

“Donna,” he said, “why would I place faith in this storm when I have faced so many others?” God, I wish he could give Congress some of his spine.

Although lots of families had the means to leave, including my two brothers and one sister, many had no place to go. Like my Dad. So they stayed and waited for the “real storm” to pass. This is now America’s storm. And none of us is in a position to leave the people there behind. We must let them know help is surely on the way.

After surviving two major hurricanes in my childhood, Betsy and Camille, as well as an assortment of wicked storms and gale force winds, my people never believed the big one would ever strike. We were wrong this time. The New Orleans area had been plain lucky. Many storms just seemed to pass us by or turn at the last minute to deal a glancing blow. This time, our luck ran out — and ran out in the biggest of ways. But, now Congress has the chance to step up and help us for real.

My birthplace and hometown will never be the same. Known for its fine food and unique culture that tourists find so fascinating — shrimp po’ boy sandwiches, coffee and beignets, Creole seafood gumbo, oysters on the half shell, fried crawfish tails and andouille sausage — the natives (below and above the ground) will never rest until we rebuild our historic city.

Like the local Louisiana and Mississippi officials who are working around the clock to rescue people and restore order, I pray Congress and the Bush administration will not abandon the rebuilding of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. I pray they unleash the power of the federal government to help those in need. If not now, when?

Personal Note: Let me say a personal thanks to everyone who has called and offered to help my family, especially Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who also have their own personal tragedies to contend with. I wish to also thank the Rev. Jesse Jackson for personally intervening and standing up for the people left behind. I am a proud Louisiana girl. Pray for us. Louisiana is still alive!

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.