WAVELAND, Miss. – On the road from New Orleans to Mississippi's Gulf Coast, U.S. Rep. Tom Davis was struck by how little has changed since he visited here in September.
The Virginia Republican, who chairs a House panel investigating the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, said his return to the region this week has left him frustrated by the pace of debris removal and rebuilding of homes and businesses.
"We're a country that can put a man on the moon, that can send a ship out to Pluto and can spend hundreds of millions of dollars to bring democracy to Baghdad. Why is it taking so long here?" the Virginia Republican asked Friday as he toured Waveland, which Katrina nearly wiped off the map.
With Congress in recess, a steady procession of federal lawmakers has toured the Gulf Coast over the last two weeks.
But the recent rash of visits isn't good enough for members of the Mississippi and Louisiana delegations, who say their colleagues can't fathom the scope of the devastation unless they see it for themselves.
Thirty senators have visited New Orleans since the storm, according to a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. Meanwhile, a tally this week by The Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans found that 44 of 435 House members had been to the city.
That's a far cry from the percentage that visited New York after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La.
"When 9/11 happened, you had to beat members of Congress off with a stick from going to New York City," Melancon said. "What's the difference (with New Orleans)? It's a major city we need to save."
Melancon said he and other members of the Louisiana delegation plan to send a letter urging House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., to encourage more members to visit the region.
"Let them smell the stench. Let them see the inside of homes," he added. "It shows them these people just can't come back (home) tomorrow."
A spokesman for Hastert did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.
U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., is a member of a congressional subcommittee on housing that toured the region last week and held hearings in New Orleans and Gulfport. Waters also is disappointed that more of her colleagues haven't visited.
"Too many members of Congress do not wish to commit themselves to the resources it's going to take to rebuild the Gulf Coast," she said. "These people need help. They need extraordinary help for an extraordinary event, but they're not getting it from Congress."
One of Waters' tour guides last week was U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., who showed them some of the travel trailers housing thousands of families. Around 5,000 families in Mississippi and roughly 21,000 homeowners in New Orleans are still waiting for trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Taylor also showed subcommittee members the storm-battered remnants of his Bay St. Louis home. "What we wanted them to see in Mississippi is that this was an equal opportunity storm," he said.
Taylor admits to feeling "a little bit of frustration" that some of his colleagues don't seem to fully grasp the extent of the storm's damage, but he's encouraged by what he's heard from those who have seen it firsthand.
"I'm amazed how quickly they catch on," he said.
U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said the $29 billion in hurricane-related aid Congress recently approved proves these visits already have paid off.
"It never fails that when people get here and see the scope of the devastation on the ground, it makes a dramatic, dramatic difference in terms of their outlook," he said.
On Friday, U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., and the mayors of Bay. St. Louis, Gulfport and Long Beach gave Davis and two other House members a tour of Mississippi's coast.
"Unless you actually come and see and touch and feel the destruction," Pickering said, "they cannot truly comprehend what is necessary to rebuild and recover."
Davis asked Bay. St. Louis Mayor Edward Favre what his community's most urgent needs are, nearly five months after the storm. His answer? Money and the freedom to cut through bureaucratic red tape.
"Unless we get creative," Favre said, "we're going to be here forever and never get the job done."