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Homeland Security Targets T-Shirt Seller

Laura Parker, USA TODAY | March 4 2006

Ridiculing the Federal Emergency Management Agency is high art in the Gulf Coast areas where Hurricane Katrina hit last year.

Many parade floats in New Orleans' Mardi Gras were decorated in themes that skewered the relief agency.

George Barisich, president of the United Commercial Fisherman's Association, has been selling anti-FEMA T-shirts since last fall, a reflection of his frustration with the federal government's response to the storm that left him homeless and unemployed.

But on Feb. 1, when he handed a shirt to a fellow Katrina victim as he was picking up canned goods at a charity's relief tent, Barisich found himself in trouble with the government.

He was cited by a group of Homeland Security officials for selling a T-shirt on federal property - in this case, near a FEMA center in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Chalmette, La.

Barisich, 49, says he didn't sell the shirt, which said: "Flooded by Katrina! Forgotten by FEMA! What's Next, Mr. Bush?" He says he gave it away.

The government is sticking to its guns. "If we ignored this violation, you could have potentially 20 to 30 people standing out in front of the (FEMA) center, obstructing things," says Dean Boyd, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokesman. "We've got a duty and a job under the law."

Boyd says the message on Barisich's shirt isn't the issue. Barisich says he intends to fight the $75 ticket in court.

Word of Barisich's plight is circulating around battered St. Bernard Parish, where 22,000 of the 26,000 homes were destroyed by flooding. Larry Ingargiola, the local emergency operations chief, calls it "totally ridiculous."

"I've tried to work with them," he says of the federal government. "But some of the rules they've got down here are unbelievable. For God's sake, everybody knows George. They're pushing the buttons a little bit too far."

Barisich says he was ticketed after six DHS officers gathered at his truck. Boyd says he can't confirm the number. Barisich says he was told he would be arrested if he did not take the ticket. "I said, 'Do you really want to arrest me? Am I the only one here who thinks this is asinine? You're harassing a person who just lost everything.' "

Barisich's extended family lost 14 of its 17 houses in St. Bernard. Three of his fishing boats vanished. Two other boats survived but can't get to sea because they're in a canal filled with debris and silt. And he doesn't have enough cash to rebuild his oyster beds.

He says he'll fight the ticket because "if you do something wrong, you pay for it. If you didn't, you don't ever say you did."

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