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Undaunted by the Odds 

Maybe we've been going about this federal aid thing all wrong. For some reason, our politicians and our nutcases haven't been able to convince Congress and the president to loosen the purse strings and throw money at us. Go figure.

This week, however, things could take a serious turn for the better. On Monday, 139 women from across South Louisiana will descend upon Washington in an attempt to get things back on track. They call themselves "Women of the Storm," and that's pretty much who they are and what they hope to do.

"Our hope is to convince a number of members of Congress to come here and see the destruction for themselves, up close," says Anne Milling, a veteran civic and charitable activist who founded the group. "Only 12 and a half percent of Congress has come to witness the devastation, and less than a third of our Senate has come. This is a major national catastrophe, but we don't think they understand the magnitude of it. And that's been a big disappointment."

Milling says the group includes a wide variety of women from all walks of life -- black and white, rich and poor, and bi-partisan politically. Their main goals, in addition to getting more congressmen and senators to visit Louisiana, are increasing support for the Baker Bill (a voluntary buy-out plan designed to prevent a housing and mortgage crisis), getting Louisiana a 50 percent share of offshore oil royalties, securing money for coastal restoration, and enhanced levee protection.

It starts with a commitment to visit Louisiana, Milling says.

"All we're asking them to give up is maybe 36 hours, but we think it's worth it," she says. "I think all of those who have come to Louisiana have changed their minds in terms of what Louisiana needs and deserves."

Thanks to fundraising efforts by Milling and others, the women will fly a chartered plane to Washington on Monday, then pair off for visits with individual lawmakers or their staffs. During those visits, the women will present personal invitations to visit scenes of devastation in the wakes of Katrina and Rita. The group has blocked out four dates in February for the all-expenses-paid trips, but Milling says the visits can be arranged whenever congressmen and senators are available to come.

And there are no ethical problems associated with this trip, she adds.

"We have gotten the blessing of the ethics committees," Milling says. "Our invitation will include transportation, food, lodging, etc., for them to come on a fact-finding educational mission. Everything that we're doing is being done through the America's Wetlands Foundation, which is a nonprofit... .

"Our agenda is really a very simple one: come see us, and once you see us, approve the revenue split for Louisiana from our offshore drilling activities, approve coastal restoration and levee improvements, and approve some sort of compromise of the Baker Bill."

Congressmen and senators who accept the invitation will be put up in area hotels and treated to meals in the homes of volunteers, Milling said. Tours will be guided by locals who are familiar with the territory and the issues surrounding Louisiana's recovery efforts. Tour volunteers include Brig. Gen. (and former state representative) Hunt Downer of the Louisiana Army National Guard and various nonprofit groups.

It's an ambitious plan, but in these times nobody is rewarding caution. More important, the group understands the priorities. In particular, if Congress would give Louisiana a fairer share of offshore oil revenues (we currently get less than one percent), we wouldn't have to trek to D.C. with our palms up.

"Historians will look back on this period of time following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as a defining moment for both our state and nation," says Milling. "To neglect the needs of this vital region of our country sets an unimaginable precedent for responses to future catastrophes."

Milling is right, of course, but being right doesn't always count for much inside the Beltway. And it's not as if Women of the Storm will articulate a brand-new message. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Mayor Ray Nagin and business leaders have tried to pound that message into the heads of congressmen and senators ever since Katrina struck. They have had some successes, but mostly they've run into marble walls.

But maybe, just maybe, a fresh approach from a group not daunted by the odds will bring better results. Let's hope so.

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