Obama to visit New Orleans for a post-Katrina survey

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 9, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- When President Barack Obama visits New Orleans this week to survey how its recovery is going four years after Hurricane Katrina, he'll have a lot to tout about the help his administration's given -- and plenty to worry about as the nation's top Democrat in a city quaking with political change.

Obama's Oct. 15 visit could both energize and polarize New Orleans, a city with an African-American majority that voted for him, but also one in a Southern state that didn't. During the campaign, Obama said that New Orleans symbolized President George W. Bush's failures, and he promised to do better.

Greg Rigamer, a New Orleans urban planner, said that the president's coming "is a sign to many of the residents who are still struggling: 'You're not out of sight; you're not out of mind. I see you. I understand.'"

Obama gets high marks for his administration's aid to New Orleans so far, but he still must show that he can deliver a public hospital, rebuild levees and restore the coastline.

Said Bob Brown, managing director of the Business Council of New Orleans: "Even if you hate him, if you see the delivery of things that are helpful to the state, and you compare that to the performance of the previous administration after Katrina, you'd have to be the biggest ideologue in the universe not to soften up a little bit."

Even Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican with presidential ambitions, has praised much of the Obama administration's approach.

Since January, Obama's team has released more than $1 billion in recovery aid for Louisiana and additional money for other Gulf Coast states from funds backlogged since the Bush administration. Billions more are in the pipeline, some from the $787 billion economic stimulus package that Congress passed in February.

Obama's choice of Craig Fugate to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency also boosted confidence, because he's an emergency management expert from hurricane-prone Florida. Locals also praise the multiple Gulf Coast visits by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other top administration officials.

"It seems like the Obama team through FEMA has come in with a whole new attitude that says, 'Let's cut through the red tape so we can get to building,'" said New Orleans City Council president Arnie Fielkow.

The administration's August announcement of a new arbitration process could be a turning point for stalled health, school, road, public safety and environmental work.

Still, even as Obama pushes for a health care overhaul in Congress, there's a struggle in New Orleans to get federal funds for building a much-needed public hospital. Louisiana leaders are also working to prevent the federal government from cutting $700 million from the state's Medicaid funds after hurricane recovery payments artificially spiked the state's per capita income.

Much remains to be done.

The Army Corps of Engineers is only a third of the way through building a $15 billion system to provide 100-year flood protection for the city. As of August, more than 60,000 properties in the New Orleans area remained abandoned or blighted, and while 3,260 Louisiana households left temporary FEMA housing between January and August, another 1,768 were still waiting. Obama just signed a six-month extension for the federal office coordinating Gulf Coast rebuilding, one measure of how much work remains.

How effective has the Obama administration's recovery work been, then, overall? "I think it's honestly too early to tell," said Amy Liu, who co-directs the New Orleans Index, an ongoing post-Katrina analysis at The Brookings Institution, a center-left research center in Washington. She said that a milestone would come next summer, halfway through what's expected to be a 10-year recovery.

In the first four post-storm years, New Orleans has experienced a whirlwind of change. It's now America's fastest-growing big city, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, its population up 8.2 percent in 2008, an impressive rebound after the exodus following Katrina. Still, at 312,000, the city is well below its pre-hurricane population of about 485,000. That, and shifting population growth elsewhere, may cost Louisiana a seat in the House of Representatives after next year's census triggers reapportionment of Congress.

Those who left New Orleans and didn't return were disproportionately lower-income, African-American and Democrats. New Orleans is now 60.7 percent African-American, down from 66.7 percent in 2000, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. It's whiter and more Hispanic than it was before the storm.

These population shifts help explain why Louisiana is an increasingly Republican state. Even the congressman from New Orleans is, for now, a Republican: Vietnamese-born Rep. Joseph Cao, who lost his home to Katrina, last year defeated incumbent Democrat Bill Jefferson, who's since been convicted on corruption charges. Next year, however, Cao will have to win re-election in a district that still heavily favors Democrats.

"His (Obama's) administration has been very cooperative with us. We do feel like they're engaged," said Princella Smith, the communications director for Cao, who expects to join Obama during his visit.

"This roux that is Louisiana is cooking down and getting harder and harder," said Elliott Stonecipher, an independent Louisiana political analyst and demographer.

In New Orleans, he said, "The council is now majority white. Nobody thought that could happen, and nobody thinks it happened for any reason other than the storm. There's a real sense of the African-American community pushing back."

While such political considerations help form the backdrop of the president's visit, White House aides say the hurricane's legacy is driving the president's trip.

Peter Burns, a political science professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, said that Obama's still beloved in the city, but added: "A lot of people in New Orleans do not have a lot of faith in government at all, and even less faith in the federal government."

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