Hurricane evacuees from Louisiana told federal and state officials at forums across the southern US on Saturday that what they want most when their state is rebuilt are affordable housing and stronger levees.
Some evacuees at the "Louisiana Speaks" forums also worried that officials have no real plans to restore certain areas, such as impoverished parts of New Orleans.
"This [forum] is a good idea," Tereece Johnson, 40, said during 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. Others were held in cities where tens of thousands of Louisiana residents fled, including Atlanta and Houston.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated South Louisiana, destroying about 217,000 homes and 18,000 businesses and causing US$25 billion in insured losses. The state expects roughly US$10 billion in federal funding for rebuilding, and Saturday's forums were 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.
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.
At the Atlanta forum, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco talked to Herbert and other evacuees, who worried 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.
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 and housekeeping worker.