LAKE CHARLES, La. – Cara Harrison drove 140 miles Monday just to vote for the next mayor of New Orleans, and she wasn't alone.
Hundreds of Hurricane Katrina evacuees boarded buses before dawn Monday in Texas and other states for the long trip to Louisiana, where they could cast early ballots starting Monday at 10 satellite voting centers set up across the state to give displaced residents a voice.
"We need to be a part of the political process," said Harrison, an evacuee from the flood-devastated Ninth Ward, who said she voted for incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin. She and her sister were the first voters at the Calcasieu Parish courthouse in Lake Charles.
The city's primary election for mayor and other offices is April 22, but fewer than half New Orleans' residents have been able to return to their devastated neighborhoods.
In Houston, where a large number of Katrina evacuees are living, about 110 evacuees chanted "What are we gonna do? Vote!" as they boarded two buses bound for Lake Charles. The riders were well aware of just how big an influence the results of this election could have on their future of their city.
"I would have walked to New Orleans if I had to. I would be less than a good citizen if I wasn't out here doing this," said New Orleans resident Elaine Stovall, 62.
About 300 others in other cities across Texas, Georgia, Arkansas and Mississippi were expected to join caravans back to their homestate this week for the sole purpose of casting their ballots, said Ginny Goldman with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, which organized the trips.
"The future of the city depends upon it," said Jerome Steib, a 40-year-old offshore petroleum platform designer, as he stood in line Monday at New Orleans City Hall to vote.
The busing is both practical and symbolic, said Kevin Whelan, spokesman for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN.
New Orleans had nearly a half-million people, about 70 percent of them black, before Hurricane Katrina. Those who have returned number fewer than 200,000, and most are white.
"Although typically 80,000 New Orleanians vote in the mayoral election, ACORN is very concerned that the lack of contact with the displaced electorate, both about news concerning the election as well as voting information," said Beaulah Labostrie, president of Louisiana ACORN.
Twenty-two candidates are challenging the re-election bid by Nagin, who has been criticized in some quarters for his response to the hurricane. Challengers include Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and Audubon Institute chief executive Ron Forman.
If no mayoral candidate gets a majority of the votes in the nonpartisan primary election April 22, the top two finishers will compete in a May 20 runoff election.
Displaced residents can vote Monday through Thursday and Saturday at early voting stations in Lake Charles, Shreveport, New Orleans and seven other Louisiana cities.
Seven mayoral candidates fielded questions from displaced voters during a forum Saturday that was broadcast to evacuees in Texas communities of Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, as well as Shreveport and Baton Rouge.
"Do you want experienced leadership that is tried and tested? Or do you want to experiment at this important time in our city's history?" Nagin asked.
Evacuees pushed the candidates for answers to questions about restoring basic services, such as electricity and trash pickup.
"I cannot lie to you and tell you every single service in every single neighborhood is going to come back immediately," said Forman, an executive credited with turning New Orleans' zoo into a national showcase.