WASHINGTON – They're stay-at-home moms, successful professionals and mothers of celebrities. And while many of the 140 women who arrived by private jet Monday hail from Louisiana's most prominent political families, their journey to the U.S. Capitol was highly personal.
Carrying photographs of their flooded homes and calling themselves "Women of the Storm," they set out in small groups to invite each member of Congress to visit post-Katrina New Orleans to see the devastation first hand — and hopefully support a boost in federal aid to the region.
"They must visit our decimated neighborhoods. They must see the devastation block by block," said Anne Milling, 65, a community activist and the wife of one of the city's top bankers.
Along with their designer bags and strings of pearls, they also carried bright blue umbrellas, symbolizing the tarps covering their pockmarked roofs.
"It was a storm that was felt around the world," Milling said. "Yet, who would dream that 87 percent of the House of Representatives and 70 percent of the Senate haven't found time to visit the site of the largest catastrophe in the history of America?"
The White House says $85 billion in federal assistance has been approved so far to help the region recover, including direct spending, tax breaks and flood insurance. Some of that money is still in the pipeline, and many Gulf Coast officials say more will be needed.
Five months after the hurricane made landfall, 55 representatives and 30 senators have visited New Orleans. The women argue that delays in federal aid to New Orleans are the result of so few lawmakers seeing the destruction up close.
The group is offering members of Congress 36-hour, all-expenses-paid trips to New Orleans.
"No TV clip does it justice," said attorney Sparky Arceneaux, 60, who shared a college dorm with first lady Laura Bush at Southern Methodist University in the 1960s.
The women, representing a Who's Who of New Orleans society, include celebrated chefs, well-known authors and several former Mardi Gras queens. After a rally at the Capitol, they set out in groups of twos and threes, equipped with biographies of the lawmakers they intended to meet.
Only a handful had secured appointments, like 38-year-old Frances Fayard, whose older siblings attended school with Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark. In the chandeliered Senate Dining Room, Pryor invited Fayard and her companions to lunch, where they quizzed him on the slow pace of the recovery. He blamed partisanship: "A lot of Republicans don't want to help Louisiana. It's sad but true," Pryor said.
At a nearby table, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., sat in discussion with two women of the storm — including her mother, Verna Landrieu, 73. "Three of my children lost their homes. I come home crying every day. It's devastating," said the elder Landrieu, matriarch of one of Louisiana's political dynasties, which includes son Mitch Landrieu, Louisiana's lieutenant governor, as well as husband Moon Landrieu, New Orleans' former mayor.
Also on the trip was Olivia Manning, wife of former New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning and mother of two current NFL quarterbacks, Peyton of the Colts and Eli of the Giants.
"When you see it with your own eyes, it's indescribable," said Manning, whose home survived unscathed but who was forced to evacuate and still hasn't returned permanently.
Hurricane Katrina landed Aug. 29, breaching levees and submerging 80 percent of New Orleans. It killed more than 1,300 people, most of them in Louisiana, and caused over $200 billion worth of damage. To date, more than 66 percent of the city's homes and offices have no electricity — and even more lack water and natural gas service.
While images of poor, black residents stranded at the Superdome have lingered, many middle- and upper-class neighborhoods also were flooded but received far less attention.
"This storm did not show any discrimination socio-economically. The water was everywhere," said Milling, who came up with the idea for the trip and helped organize fundraising efforts for the initiative, including $70,000 for the charter flight.