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Storming Capitol Hill to Help Louisiana

Women of the Storm encourage lawmakers to visit the devastated Gulf Coast so they will be roused to offer aid. Scores have accepted.

October 21, 2006|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

The chartered jet that lifted off at dawn recently from New Orleans carried 131 Louisiana women -- homemakers, professionals, full-time volunteers and local celebrities, dressed for political combat in pastel power suits, smart skirt outfits and discreet jewelry.

As they sipped coffee and munched scones, their conversations ranged from their kids' progress at school to next month's reopening of a downtown landmark, Saks Fifth Avenue.

But the chatter came to a stop when Anne Milling, a striking, slender woman in her 60s, strode to the front of the plane. Brimming with confidence and charm, she outlined the game plan. At stake was nothing less than the future of their Gulf Coast home, battered a year ago by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

"Be positive, be tenacious, be your upbeat self," Milling urged her compatriots. "This is how you're going to sell Louisiana."

The Women of the Storm, as this ad hoc group calls itself, were about to land in Washington and embark on a one-day mission in the nation's halls of power. The goal: to persuade members of Congress to help save the state's fast-disappearing coastline.

The powerful folks in Washington ignore this eclectic group at their peril. The Women are quickly becoming a recognized power among the activist groups that have sprouted from the rubble of Katrina, many fueled by frustration with the slow pace of government assistance.

Their first objective has been to bring Washington to New Orleans. The group's premise is simple: When lawmakers see how devastated the Gulf Coast looks, they will be roused to help. So far, the group has helped convince 55 of the nation's 100 senators and at least 106 of its 435 representatives to visit Louisiana.

But the Women of the Storm also have accomplished something just as rare: offering this city, historically fraught with ethnic division, a shining example of cross-cultural unity. Among these women are whites, blacks, Latinas and Asians. They are executives, civil servants and stay-at-home moms, all pulling together for the future of their city.

Before landing to tackle their September agenda, the group's leaders prepped the fledgling lobbyists.

"Don't hesitate to be dramatic," advised Pam Bryan, a member of the group's executive committee. "What we're asking for is $15 billion. When you think about it, that's not a lot of money. Don't be afraid to ask for that. Please pass on the sense of urgency ... that we need this money now!"

Information sheets rustled, and whispered acknowledgments were heard through the cabin. Two committee members, Beverly Church and Nancy Marsiglia, rose for a role-playing exercise, with Church playing a skeptical U.S. representative and Marsiglia playing a Woman of the Storm.

"What about your leadership? Who is running the city?" Church demanded.

"We think it is important to keep politics out of this," Marsiglia responded. "We are a citizens group, and citizens are leading the way. We are the face of Louisiana today."

The grass-roots women's movement was born on Thanksgiving as Milling sat down to dinner with a group of friends and talked about the paucity of help after the storm. By Jan. 10, Milling had gathered eight pals in her living room to make a plan. And by Jan. 30, when they made their first trip to Capitol Hill to lobby for the release of funds for Louisiana's Road Home program, they had added more than 120 to their ranks. Today, more than 500 Louisiana members are registered on the group's e-mail list.

Financed by donations, the group is a broad range of Gulf Coast women, including some local celebrities, like 83-year-old chef Leah Chase, commonly known as the "queen of Creole Cuisine" and owner of the landmark New Orleans restaurant Dooky Chase's.

They hand-deliver invitations to the politicians and lead those who visit the region on tours of the most damaged neighborhoods.

Still, 45 senators and at least 329 U.S. representatives have not made the journey.

"Why have they not come?" asked Cecile Tebo, a member of the group who is also a crisis unit coordinator for the New Orleans Police Department and a third-generation New Orleanian. "Is it fear? I can't imagine. This affects the entire country. Until you feel it, see it, smell it, hear it, you don't understand it."

For many of the women, mastering the intricacies of lobbying on Capitol Hill is new. But just as Katrina changed New Orleans forever, it changed their minds about their roles in its recovery. Jeanette Bell, a floriculturist who is African American, said, "I believe my presence [in the group] represents a commitment on the part of people of color. Just because we're not always in the forefront doesn't mean that we aren't committed to the rebuilding of the city."

"It's the power of group," added Tebo, the police crisis unit worker. "This is typical New Orleans. There's that passion. There's that little bit of funk."

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