ATLANTA -- Hurricane evacuees from Louisiana told federal and state officials at forums across the South yesterday that affordable housing, better schools, and stronger levees are what they want most when their state is rebuilt.
Some evacuees at the ''Louisiana Speaks" forums also expressed concern that officials have no real plans to restore certain areas, such as New Orleans's impoverished Lower Ninth Ward.
''This [forum] is a good idea," said Tereece Johnson, 40, at an event held in Atlanta. ''But is it going to accomplish something? I can't say." Johnson's mother and aunt lived in the Ninth Ward and want to return.
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.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated southern Louisiana, destroying about 217,000 homes and 18,000 businesses and causing $25 billion in insured losses. The state expects roughly $10 billion in federal funding for rebuilding, and yesterday's forums are part of a planning process to figure out how to best use that money, state officials said.
Input from the meetings is to be incorporated in a long-term regional plan for rebuilding Louisiana.
But some were not ready to talk about the future.
''You're talking about rebuilding?" shrieked Denise Herbert, 47, momentarily silencing about 100 people gathered at the 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 has been missing for five months.
Louisiana's governor, Kathleen B. Blanco, who was at the Atlanta forum, talked to Herbert and other evacuees, who focused on immediate needs like rental assistance and help with mental anguish.
''We have to do a combination of all of that," 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."
More than 1,300 Katrina-related deaths have been reported across five states, with 1,080 of those from Louisiana.
Of the roughly 44,000 Louisiana residents evacuated to Georgia, mostly to the Atlanta area, only about 150 attended the forum.
Many evacuees said the availability of affordable housing will make or break their decision.
''I'd like to go back -- if I can get suitable housing," said Joseph Howard, 48, a hospital housekeeping worker.
Rosalind Williams, 61, said she was paying about $500 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in Orleans Parish and would need a comparable rent in order to return. ''When will there be affordable housing?" she asked.