New Orleans – President Barack Obama jetted to this hurricane battered city Thursday to deliver a fiery call to action, vowing to rebuild to the Gulf Coast area as a boisterous crowd chanted “yes we can!”
“I promise you this,” Obama said during his first visit to the city as president. “Together we will rebuild this region and we will build it stronger than before.”
Although the trip was met with criticism from some local officials and members of the audience, who said that the Obama Administration hasn’t done enough to help with ongoing rebuilding efforts, Obama struck an optimistic tone, declaring, “We are committed to making sure that a disaster like Katrina does not happen again.”
“Katrina may have swept through this city, but it did not destroy this community, and that is because of you – the people of New Orleans,” Obama said. “You deserve leaders in Washington who are willing to work as hard as you are.”
Noting that it has been four years since the Hurricane struck, Obama said that the damage of Katrina was not just caused by nature, but by a “failure of government.”
“I saw the consequences of this failure during my visits here as a Senator and then as a candidate,” Obama said. Taking office, he said, one of his key priorities was disaster recovery. “I wanted to get it right and I wanted us to be ready,” Obama said.
But during a question and answer period, one man in the audience asked why federal disaster reimbursements remained so small and slow.
“I expected as much from the Bush administration, but why are we still being nickeled and dimed in our recovery?” he asked. Obama said that his administration was “working as hard as we can, as quickly as we can.”
“I know since a lot of these problems have been going on since Katrina, people understandably feel impatient,” he said. “On the other hand, a lot of these things are not going to be fixed tomorrow.”
The heavily partisan Democratic crowd of just over 1,000 – which the president described as “feisty” – booed when Obama introduced Louisiana’s Republican Governor Bobby Jindal at the town hall meeting, prompting the president to joke: “Bobby, if it makes you feel any better, I get that all the time.” Although they have their political differences, Obama said, Jindal deserves credit for being “a hard workin’ man.”
But Obama did take a veiled partisan jab, noting: “I’m proud that my FEMA director, Craig Fugate, has 25 years of experience in disaster management in Florida, a state that has known its share of hurricanes.” Left unspoken was the name of Bush FEMA director Michael “Heckuva Job” Brown, and the drubbing the Bush administration took for its slow response to Katrina.
Obama’s trip was billed more as a mini-listening tour than an attempt to bring Federal largesse to the beleaguered region. And the presence of Jindal – who is often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2012, lent it a bipartisan feel.
Separately, three of Obama’s cabinet secretaries flew to New Orleans Thursday to fan out across the city for their own recovery-related events.
“The president is keeping his promise,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan told POLITICO. “It was a commitment that what you would see from this administration was a fundamentally different kind of response.” While in town, Donovan visited a ground breaking ceremony for the B.W. Cooper housing development, a $142 million effort to resurrect a public housing community that was vacated after Katrina.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited John McDonogh High to talk to high school seniors along with Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.). And Department of Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano stopped at the Vessel Traffic Center, a Coast Guard-operated facility responsible for managing 20 miles of waterways on the Lower Mississippi River.
On Thursday, more than 50 religious officials sent the president a letter calling for a long term hurricane recovery plan that would include poverty, erosion and climate change mitigation efforts. Citing “significant gaps” towards meeting federal promises to Gulf Coast communities, the letter said, “Four years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck and the levees were breached, the slow pace of recovery, persistent poverty, climate change and coastal land loss have created a moral crisis across the region that demands a powerful response from people of faith and our elected officials.” The faith-based effort was organized by Louisiana-based groups All Congregations Together (ACT) and Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing.
The president’s abbreviated schedule attracted criticism from some within his own party when the details of his visit began to leak out last week. Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, Obama’s fellow Democrat, issued a politely worded critique at the time: “If this visit is too brief, it will not afford the president the opportunity to see firsthand the impact that an effective and committed administration can have on rebuilding neighborhoods and communities.” She has since pronounced herself satisfied with the scheduling.
The White House pushed back vigorously against suggestions that the president was giving short shrift to the gulf region, and press aides rattled off a legion of statistics designed to demonstrate the federal commitment to rebuilding.
“In the first 9 months of the Obama administration, the Gulf Coast has become one of the most visited areas by President Obama’s top administration officials,” said White House spokesman Nick Shapiro. “To date, there have been 35 trips to the Gulf Coast by more than 20 senior administration officials.”
The White House said that Obama has cleared away bureaucratic hurdles and sped assistance to the people of the gulf. As a result, aides argued, more than $1 billion in federal funds that had been stuck has flowed to the gulf, including work on roads, bridges, Army Corps construction, schools, and health centers.
The White House also pointed out that then-Senator Obama made five trips to New Orleans in the wake of the Katrina disaster. Aides said he had plenty of opportunity for thorough tours of the damage from the hurricane and has even had the chance to indulge in the local culture — eating gumbo at the restaurant Dooky Chase in 2008 and attending services at First Emanuel Baptist Church during a visit in 2007 that included tours of the wreckage and briefings from officials.
The president touched down on a sunny, and swelteringly humid day at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, shook hands with Jindal, and headed directly to Martin Luther King charter school in the hard hit Lower 9th Ward, which, as the first public school to be rebuilt there following the storm, has become something of an emblem of the region’s rebuilding effort.
Obama was greeted by Thursday editions of the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper featuring a list of the unfinished hurricane recovery business the President should note on his visit. The newspaper’s list included disappearing wetlands, unfinished levees still unfinished, a housing crunch, the shuttered Charity and Veterans hospitals downtown, FEMA trailers in which the city government still does much of its business, and persistent high crime.