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Louisiana tribe devastated by Katrina and Rita

Fighting back tears, the leader of a Louisiana tribe described on Thursday the devastation her people have felt after being hit not by one but two hurricanes.

Brenda Dardar Robichaux, the principal chief of the United Houma Nation, said tribal communities in the bayous of southeastern Louisiana were completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The storm hit the Gulf Coast in late August, forcing more than 3,000 members to flee their homes.

"What we saw was total devastation," Robichaux said at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The vice principal chief's mobile home was among those flooded and displaced by Katrina, she said.

Then just a few weeks later, tragedy struck again. This time it was Hurricane Rita, which didn't hit tribal communities directly but caused a massive storm that led to even more flooding.

"What I saw was just heartbreaking," Robichaux said after touring one tribal town that was submerged.

With 16,000 members, the Houma Nation is one of the largest in the states that were affected by Katrina and Rita. Tribes in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas have dealt with power outages, flooding and stuctural damage. One tribe had to temporarily close its casino due to a power outage.

But unlike its neighbors, the Houma Nation is at a major disadvantage. Although it is recognized by the state of Louisiana, the tribe lacks federal recognition and can't access many of the same services offered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal entities.

"It's just another case of us being forgotten," Robichaux said.

The tribe has instead received help from Indian Country. The National Congress of American Indians has coordinated donations that have helped Houma people who lost everything, Robichaux said.

"They just want to go home," Houma said tearfully as she described the despair felt by her people. "They just want to go home."

But even federally-recognized tribes face problems, other speakers at the press conference said. Although the BIA responded to Katrina quickly, the agency has minimal resources to help in times of disaster, said Robert Holden, who manages emergy prorams for NCAI.

The BIA has provided debris removal and some law enforcement services to tribes, Holden said. BIA officials also toured some of the affected communities.

FEMA's response to Katrina has been roundly criticized by state and federal offcials. The agency only deals with federally recognized tribes, Holden noted.

"It's a definite barrier," Robichaux said of her tribe's lack of recognition.

Tribal nations stand to lose further if a bill making its way through the Senate passes. Holden said the $250 billion hurricane relief package leaves out Indian Country.

"There's nothing in there for tribal governments, for tribal communities," he said.

Rebecca Adamson, the president of the First Nations Development Institute, said tribes need to lobby Congress on S.1776, the Louisiana Katrina Reconstruction Act, or they will be "denied resources and services" that they need to rebuild their communities and help the United States as a whole.

But the bright spot, Adamson said, is that Indian Country has reached out to help tribes and tribal members affected by the hurricanes. In the wake of Katrina, tribes have donated over $5 million, NCAI said. Donations have poured into an NCAI relief fund, to the Red Cross and to tribes directly.

"The magnitude of this is truly new to Indian Country," said Adamson.

The United Houma Nation has asked for federal recognition through the BIA. The tribe was issued a negative proposed finding in 1994 and is waiting for a final determination.

"We've been in the process for 20 years," Robichaux said.

Donations for tribes affected by the storms can be sent to:
NCAI's Hurricane Relief Fund
1301 Connecticut, Ave, NW
Suite 200 Washington, DC 20036

Senate Bill:
Louisiana Katrina Reconstruction Act (S.1766)

Relevant Links:
United Houma Nation -