Gulf Watch: Docs and pols hit the Big Easy

We don't usually think of New Orleans as a remote place. After all, it's one of the world's most visited cities, a renowned center of art, culture, music, cuisine.

How a natural disaster -- compounded by official neglect -- can change things.

Two charitable medical organizations that usually provide care to remote communities from Africa to Appalachia opened a week-long free clinic in New Orleans yesterday and were overwhelmed with people seeking treatment. On the first day alone, volunteer doctors and nurses with Remote Area Medical and Operation Blessing International saw at least 500 patients, and they hope to treat as many as 10,000 before the week is through.

"We have put up approximately 20,000 square feet of tents, which are serving as vision, dental and medical exam rooms," says Jody Herrington, U.S. director of disaster relief for Operation Blessing, an organization founded in 1978 by controversial televangelist Pat Robertson.

This is the second year the groups have teamed up with the state and local health departments to offer care to residents of the New Orleans area, where the medical infrastructure remains severely crippled from Hurricane Katrina. Last year's Medical Recovery Week treated more than 9,600 patients and dispensed an average of 650 prescriptions each day.

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Politicians also descended on New Orleans this week, and it didn't take them long to diagnose residents' growing frustration.

The U.S. Senate's Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee convened a hearing today at Louisiana's Supreme Court building to take testimony from federal, state and local officials. Scheduled witnesses include federal Gulf Coast Rebuilding Coordinator Donald Powell, Mayor Ray Nagin, and representatives of the Small Business Administration, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, FEMA, U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Louisiana Recovery and Greater New Orleans Inc.

Soon after Chairman Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) opened the hearing, he was interrupted by a protestor, the Associated Press reports:

The man yelled, "Stand up for justice! We want somebody to stand up for justice!" before a law enforcement officer led him out of the hearing room at Louisiana's Supreme Court building.

Lieberman acknowledged that it's "hard to come back here more than a year after Katrina ... without feeling that emotion," according to the AP. He also said that his colleagues "understand the work is not done, to put it mildly."

However, Lieberman himself is a source of frustration for some Gulf Coast residents seeking justice for the feds' bungled -- and allegedly political -- storm response. Though Lieberman had promised during his recent campaign to hold the Bush administration accountable for its mishandling of the disaster, he has since backed away from that pledge.

The fact that today's hearing was completely dominated by public officials was another sore spot for some. In an e-mail message sent prior to the hearing, Elizabeth Cook of New Orleans' United Front for Affordable Housing wrote:

Notice that the "menu" for the senate hearing, to be chaired by our favorite Senator Joe Lieberman, to be held in New Orleans this Monday does not include any citizens and/or activists for housing and human rights. HUD will be there. The LRA will be there. Nagin will be there ... all purveyors of the agenda to keep the working poor from returning to the city. We aren't invited.

Let's invite ourselves and crash this party.