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Obama set for first visit to New Orleans as president

His stay Thursday will last less than four hours, causing complaints from some that the city still suffering from Hurricane Katrina is receiving little executive attention.

October 15, 2009|Richard Fausset

NEW ORLEANS — Barack Obama's first presidential appearance in New Orleans today is set to be short and tightly scripted, with a visit to a Lower 9th Ward charter school and a town hall meeting at the University of New Orleans.

If the president has a chance to look out the window of his limo, he will probably get a firsthand glimpse of the massive logistical headache he has inherited: More than four years after Hurricane Katrina, 91,000 homes remain blighted in the city and in two nearby parishes, according to August figures compiled by the Brookings Institution.

But it is evident that Obama has also inherited the political headache that post-storm recovery became for the previous administration.

The allegations haven't risen to Kanye West levels -- it was rapper West who famously alleged that former President George W. Bush didn't care about black people. But a handful of Republicans and others here have been grumbling loudly about what they see as scant executive attention to one of the worst disasters to befall a U.S. city.

Much of it focuses on the fact that Obama's only visit to New Orleans since his inauguration nine months ago will last about three hours and 45 minutes.

In an Oct. 8 letter to the president, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said it would be "deeply disappointing" to Louisianians if Obama did not plan a more thorough tour of the region. In the local Times-Picayune newspaper, Tulane University historian Lawrence N. Powell said Obama "shouldn't come at all if he's coming for a glorified layover."

Even Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, the state's Democratic senator, fretted that the visit was too brief.

On New Orleans talk radio Wednesday, morning host Michael Castner of WRNO-FM (99.5) labeled a caller a "hypocrite" for bashing Bush's lack of a vigorous response to Katrina -- but not Obama's.

"It's OK with Bush, but it's not OK for the Anointed One," Castner said, in a sarcastic reference to Obama.

The Obama administration has pushed back hard against the charge of Katrina malaise, noting that Obama visited the storm-struck area five times before he was president.

Nick Shapiro, a White House spokesman, said that three Cabinet secretaries also would be traveling to New Orleans today for separate events: Janet Napolitano from Homeland Security; Shaun Donovan of Housing and Urban Development; and Arne Duncan from the Department of Education.

Since Obama's inauguration, officials noted, more than 20 senior administration officials have made 35 trips to Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and New Orleans has been awarded more than $1 billion in economic stimulus money, according to White House figures.

"We haven't just made promises," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said at a Wednesday briefing. "We've delivered."

Those claims are backed up, somewhat predictably, by Democratic officials such as Julie Schwam Harris, director of intergovernmental relations for the city.

Harris particularly praised the Federal Emergency Management Agency under Obama for agreeing to city arguments that a number of public buildings were more than 50% damaged, and thus eligible for demolition and replacement with recovery funds.

But the Obama administration has also won high praise from Paul Rainwater, the state recovery chief appointed by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Rainwater, a former legislative director for Landrieu, has been head of the Louisiana Recovery Authority since January 2008. In an interview Wednesday, he agreed with Harris that a "new attitude" at Obama's FEMA was responsible for freeing up hundreds of millions of dollars in recovery money that had been stuck in bureaucratic limbo during the Bush years.

Jindal, Rainwater said, would be comfortable with his praise of the Democratic White House. Jindal himself in August praised FEMA's new practical approach.

"My Republican boss is very interested in results, and rebuilding and repairing the lives of people living in the community," Rainwater said.

The state, he said, will continue to lobby hard for a more ambitious recovery program than the Obama team has signed off on thus far.

He said the state could use hundreds of millions more for coastal protection programs, as well as an even sturdier flood protection system: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' ongoing levee improvement work, when finished, will still not withstand a flood as forceful as Katrina -- though it will be an improvement from the past.

Obama is almost certain to find a welcoming audience on his first stop today, when he visits the Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School. Officials at the school -- like the neighborhood, almost all black -- said the election of the first African American president was one of the few bright spots in the troubled years since the storm.

"The president's never too late," said Lindsey Moore, an administrator.

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