15 Democrats Tour Areas Hit By Hurricane Katrina

Fifteen Democratic members of Congress embarked Monday morning on bus tours of storm-stricken areas in this still devastated city the day before the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

They were to visit the Mississippi Gulf Coast later in the day and more of their colleagues were expected to join them. President Bush meanwhile was to visit Mississippi on Monday then head to New Orleans Monday evening for events on Tuesday marking the anniversary.

The Democrats' trip was led by Rep. William Jefferson of New Orleans, who said the recovery was going slowly because of the complexity of the issues involved and concerns many evacuees have about returning.

"We've got a lot of work to do. We have to have a visit and stay committed to it," Jefferson said.

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Democrats are to hold a news conference Wednesday to outline their plans for the area.

The anniversary falls on the same day as a deadline, imposed by the City Council, for many New Orleans residents to gut or otherwise secure and clean up their damaged houses.

The deadline was getting a mixed reaction among hurricane victims. Jim Roy was one who saw no reason why other homeowners in his Lakeview neighborhood can't clean-up their flood-damaged houses.

"Make a decision," he said recently, as he helped a neighbor do yard work. "Take care of the property or sell it."

City officials are hoping to urge along the decision making. They've set Tuesday — the first anniversary of the storm — as the deadline for homeowners to gut or otherwise clean their properties.

Some residents hope the deadline will spur a cleanup that, in turn, will lead to more redevelopment and repopulation after the exodus that followed Katrina.

"The city needs to do what it needs to do," councilman Arnie Fielkow said Friday, when the City Council approved some exemptions to the deadline.

People who don't gut or clean up after being put on notice face a range of possible penalties, from liens on their property to the seizure or destruction of homes. There is an appeals process.

"To see a home cleaned up, even if it's not occupied, does a lot psychologically," said Bari Landry. In Lakeview, she sees signs of new life. But there also are signs of the disaster, from deserted houses, with windows and doors standing wide open, to tall tangles of weeds.

That the city has a long way to go to recover was evident during Sunday's anniversary observances. More events are scheduled Monday and Tuesday.

On Sunday, NAACP President and CEO Bruce S. Gordon led a walking tour of the Lower Ninth Ward to a neighborhood memorial Sunday. Gordon said he believes government, on all levels, continues to fail residents in that still devastated neighborhood.

In the badly flooded Mid-City neighborhood, the First United Baptist Church still holds services under a tent outside the battered church.

"We have a lot of work in this neighborhood," the Rev. Marshall Truehill Jr. told his congregation. He challenged them to go door-to-door and find people in need of help, and those without transportation who might need to get a ride out of town if another hurricane hits New Orleans.

Other remembrances in and around New Orleans included a gospel concert at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where thousands of evacuees suffered stifling heat and waited for food and water in the days following Katrina, and a silent charity auction at the downtown casino that was used as a staging area by police immediately after the storm.

Also Sunday, Gov. Kathleen Blanco activated the state's Emergency Operations Center in case Tropical Storm Ernesto veered west rather than continuing on a path toward Florida.

Early forecast tracks indicated a threat to New Orleans late next week but the tracks had shifted to the east by Sunday morning, centering on Florida and moving Louisiana out of the expected danger zone.

"Louisiana will be prepared for Ernesto," said Col. Jeff Smith, acting director of the state Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness said. "We well remember how Katrina changed course from Florida to Louisiana in a very short period of time."

Blanco said the state was prepared for whatever the storm did, but added: "One of the things we don't want to do is overreact, unnecessarily and put unnecessary strain on our people."

The Lower Ninth Ward, one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by Katrina, is exempt from the gutting deadline, although residents will be expected to take care of their damaged houses by an unspecified future date.

Others may be exempt, too, if they have an "acceptable" excuse, such as being on the list for a gutting service that hasn't gotten around to their property yet.

Enforcement could begin any time after Tuesday.

That bothers Patricia Jones, who works at a recovery center. She said many people remain displaced or are waiting for checks or direction from city officials before deciding what they should do. "The city hasn't even done their part in a year," she said, noting that many public schools remain closed and housing is still in short supply.

Tracy Washington, who directs the NAACP's Gulf Coast Advocacy Center, expects many people will need at least until the end of the year to gut their homes or to get on a list to have the work done. Waiting lists are, in some cases, months long, according to information on the city Web site.

The city might be providing too many exceptions, hindering the measure, roy said. Residents aren't being asked to rebuild by Tuesday, just to clean up and secure houses that could become health hazards.

"Give people a hard and fast date or they delay, delay, delay for one reason or another," he said.