Katrina Victims Bring Real Emotion to Capitol Hill

At at a break in a Capitol Hill hearing, a group of public housing residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina get a chance to debate a bureaucrat representing a federal agency that wants to tear their homes down.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

NPR's Pam Fessler has been reporting on government's troubled response to Hurricane Katrina. And in her Reporter's Notebook this week, she shares a rare encounter between victims and bureaucrats.

PAM FESSLER: Most congressional hearings are highly scripted. Witnesses testify, lawmakers ask questions. There are tensions and theatrics but few surprises. At first, a hearing on housing for Hurricane Katrina victims was no exception.

Unidentified Man: Recovery is taking time. States have only spent one billion two hundred million...

FESSLER: Government witnesses testified at length on all they've so far. But stewing in the back were public housing tenants from New Orleans who have yet to return to their homes. When the committee took a break, the tenants pounced.

Ms. SHARON SEARS-JASPER (Hurricane Victim): Why are you guys playing politics with our lives and our families?

FESSLER: Sharon Sears-Jasper and the others surrounded the witness table, confronting Roy Bernardi, deputy secretary of housing and urban development, the man who holds their fate in his hands.

Ms. SEARS-JASPER: You keep lying about the fact that somebody - I don't know who it is, but I'm stressed out. I'm sick. I'm tired.

FESSLER: The tenants are upset because HUD plans to tear their housing developments and replace them with new ones. But the tenants say the units are still livable.

Unidentified Woman: It's nothing wrong with our...

Ms. SEARS-JASPER: But why can't we go back home?

Mr. ROY BERNARDI (HUD): Well, that's what they're having this hearing about.

Ms. SEARS-JASPER: I know it's not...

Mr. BERNARDI: That's what they're having the hearing about.

Ms. SEARS-JASPER: I know it's not to be trusted; they say they're going to do this and then don't do nothing.

Mr. BERNARDI: We're not, we want - I want you to go back home. We want you to go back. We want you to go back home to another unit, to a better unit, to a better environment.

FESSLER: It was a sight to behold, the tenants pressed up against the table, anxious, upset. They wore brick colored shirts for the bricks they say helped public housing withstand much of Katrina's wrath. Bernardi was the picture of a deputy secretary - gray pinstripe suit, red tie, American flag pin in his lapel. He leaned forward, listening intently, trying to explain.

Mr. BERNARDI: Let me answer the question.

Ms. SEARS-JASPER: Answer me. Answer my question.

Mr. BERNARDI: Excuse me. The difference is, is whether they are livable or not. The inspectors have been through there. They indicate to us what - that - they indicate to us that they're not. I mean, we're not doing this for any political reason, any money reason that I know of. The fact of the matter is, is we want to do what's best.

Ms. SEARS-JASPER: But why tear down something good to put something cheap up there that's not going to last?

FESSELER: Eventually, Bernardi got a reprieve when an aide whispered there was something he had to go do. But the exchange reminded me that there's still a huge divide between bureaucrats frustrated they can't do enough, and hurricane victims certain that the rest of nation has forgotten them and moved on.

SIMON: NPR's Pam Fessler.

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