NEW ORLEANS — Sen. Barack Obama criticized the Bush administration Monday for the slow pace of Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts, saying reconstruction no longer seemed to be a White House priority.
"There is not a sense of urgency in this administration to get this done," said Obama (D-Ill.), who is weighing a run for president. "You get a sense that will has been lacking in the last several months."
Obama, a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, was in New Orleans for a panel field hearing on Gulf Coast rebuilding.
Democratic Mayor C. Ray Nagin told the committee that he still did not see "the will to really fix" his city and suggested that race was a factor.
"I think it's more class than anything, but there's racial issues associated with it also," said Nagin, who is African American.
Nagin complained that cumbersome paperwork and disputes with federal officials over the value of damaged buildings had slowed the money flow.
"And then I look at what we're doing in Iraq and how we spend money at an unprecedented level there, how we can set up temporary hospitals and designate money to rebuild their economy, and we have this dance going on in New Orleans," he said.
Federal officials involved with rebuilding efforts defended their work in testimony before the committee.
Donald Powell, Homeland Security's coordinator for Gulf Coast reconstruction, told members he was confident that when the history of the recovery effort was written it would "also be a story of modern renaissance."
Powell added, "President Bush is committed to rebuilding the Gulf Coast and rebuilding it better and stronger."
In the days and months after Katrina, the federal response was criticized as incompetent, slow, and indifferent to the destruction in New Orleans' poorest areas.
The flooding had the greatest impact on low-income black residents, many of whom did not have transportation or financial resources to evacuate on their own.
After the hearing, the senators took a bus tour of the city's Lower 9th Ward, a low-income, predominantly African American neighborhood. Empty, ruined homes still bear the Xs painted on to show which buildings had been searched for survivors of the hurricane.
The hearing was one of the committee's first since Democrats took control of the Senate. No Republican members attended.
The session also followed criticism of Bush for not mentioning the New Orleans recovery effort in last week's State of the Union address.
Obama echoed that criticism, noting that Bush had traveled to the city shortly after the disaster and had promised to do "what it takes
But "17 months later, we heard not a single word, not one word in President Bush's State of the Union address," Obama said. "Those of us who are concerned all across the country wonder if we're in danger of forgetting about New Orleans, and that's shameful."