By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Even before Air Force One touches down in New Orleans on Thursday afternoon, President Obama is discovering the burdens of rebuilding a city that feels abandoned by the federal government.
Four years after Hurricane Katrina, swaths of New Orleans remain devastated by the winds and floods that tore through. More than 65,000 homes remain abandoned. There is no public hospital. The levees that keep back the Gulf of Mexico are still vulnerable.
The responsibility for getting more federal help to New Orleans has now passed from President George W. Bush to Obama, and with it the impatience of the city's residents.
"The people that I talk to are frustrated with the setbacks that they have had to endure, are frustrated with the nature of the bureaucracy that allows decisions to be unmade for long periods of time," said Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
The frustration, she said, is a reflection of "the pent-up need . . . for a sense of serious attention from the federal government."
Obama has repeatedly sent Cabinet secretaries into New Orleans, often with money to jump-start stalled projects. White House officials say they have cut red tape and loosened $1.5 billion in assistance that was stuck in the federal pipeline. They say more than 3,500 people have been moved to permanent housing.
But civic leaders are grumbling that the president's scheduled five-hour visit to the hurricane- and flood-damaged area -- his first since taking office -- is not sufficient to communicate his concern.
"A town hall event and a mystery stop? That's it?" the Times-Picayune newspaper editorialized last week before the trip was finalized and a school tour was added. "The White House plan for President Barack Obama's first post-election visit to New Orleans seems to be lacking in substance and fun."
Criticism is also coming from Mississippi and southwest Louisiana, where storm-weary residents are asking why New Orleans is the only visit on Obama's schedule before a quick stop in San Francisco for a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.
The White House calls the criticism unfounded, noting that as a candidate and a senator, Obama visited the Gulf Coast repeatedly.
"The president has been to New Orleans five times since Katrina and has done most of the things people are saying they want him to do," spokesman Nick Shapiro said. "What he hasn't done is hold a public event where he can hear directly from the people."
As a candidate, Obama used the plight of the city as a rallying cry for change, often citing what he said was an inadequate response by the Bush administration to the needs of the people there.
"I promise you that when I'm in the White House, I will commit myself every day to keeping up Washington's end of the bargain," Obama said at Tulane University in February 2008. "This will be a priority of my presidency."
But like Bush, whose presidency was marred by the federal response to Katrina and its aftermath, Obama is faced with the politically sensitive challenge of helping citizens in the New Orleans area and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast recover while managing a national economic downturn.
"The issue here is what happens after his trip," said Amy Liu, deputy director of the metropolitan policy program at the Brookings Institution. "What does the administration do from now until the five-year anniversary of the storm? It's a landmark date. It's a natural reflection point to say, 'Boy, did all those public investments put New Orleans on the path to recovery?' "
White House officials say they are accelerating progress by using the clout of Cabinet secretaries to clear away bureaucratic hurdles. Longtime observers of the city's recovery efforts say Obama's creation of an arbitration panel has helped speed up funding for construction of schools, roads, sewers and other infrastructure.
"There were a lot of those matters just clogged up; they weren't moving," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in an interview. "We set up special teams to go down there, really work the process and get that money out."
Napolitano said that "substantial progress" has been made during the past nine months because "our approach has been: Let's solve this problem and get this money out the door. If you go down there now, it's substantially different than it was a year ago."
But critics say the White House is unfairly tarring the previous administration, which they say eventually developed an effective operation aimed at distributing federal help to those in the affected region.
D.J. Nordquist, who served in the Bush administration's gulf recovery office, said billions of dollars were transferred to state and local agencies during the later years of Bush's presidency -- only to remain there, undistributed.
She said 30 percent of the $13.4 billion in disaster grants to the area has not been spent, the result of delays at all levels, not just the government. She noted that Bush also created programs to fast-track funding.
"We cut through the red tape, removed bottlenecks and, as a result, reduced the average time for processing grants from months to weeks through this expedited FEMA process we initiated," Nordquist said. "Overall, I don't think this blame game is healthy. There's been enough finger-pointing down in the gulf. The people down there deserve better."
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), whose district runs along the north and south shores of Lake Pontchartrain, said Obama has yet to throw the weight of his office behind "Category 5 flood protection" or coastal restoration for New Orleans.
"He made a lot of promises and was very critical of President Bush, saying that he would do a better job as president," Scalise said. "There are a lot of logjams that need to be broken through."
In response, White House officials noted that the president has ordered the creation of an Ocean Policy Task Force to focus on coastal regions and a Gulf Coast Interagency Working Group to study the issues there. Officials also said several agencies are working toward a comprehensive strategy for dealing with Category 5 hurricanes.
Crowley said the White House has not acted on her suggestion to designate a Gulf Coast recovery czar, and she wonders whether Obama and his advisers recognize the magnitude of the problems.
"It's hugely complex," she said. "I'm not going to say they didn't understand that. But their initiatives are having to make it through the various buzz saws that are in place."