WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, who accused former President George W. Bush of leading a government “that sits on its hands while a major American city drowns,” is hearing directly from New Orleans residents who have struggled to rebuild their city since the 2005 hurricane season.
Obama arrives in New Orleans Thursday on his first presidential trip to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. About 1,600 people were killed in Louisiana and Mississippi by Hurricane Katrina, which caused $40 billion in damages and displaced 1 million people from their homes.
The storm was a natural disaster that turned into a political one for Bush.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency was widely criticized for a slow response. And local officials have complained that the Bush administration often stubbornly refused to pay for work that should have qualified for federal aid.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, has credited Obama’s team with bringing a more practical and flexible approach to the reconstruction process. “There’s a sense of momentum and a desire to get things done,” he said in August.
When Obama became president, FEMA said there were more than 120 Louisiana reconstruction projects stalled in federal-state disputes. Since January, 76 of those have been resolved.
While it’s Obama’s first trip to New Orleans, it’s the administration’s 18th trip to the city. And administration officials have made 35 trips to the Gulf Coast since March.
By the time Obama took office, the federal government had committed more than $126 billion to rebuilding Gulf Coast communities affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. In the past nine months, the administration says more than $1.4 billion in additional federal aid has gone toward repairing and rebuilding Louisiana and $160 million more to Mississippi.
But the impact from Katrina is still visible in places like New Orleans. Across from a school Obama planned to visit, firefighters work out of a trailer and a storm-shuttered community center awaits demolition.
Some residents have criticized Obama for the brevity of his trip — he’s expected to be in the city just a few hours — and those in Mississippi, which took a direct hit from Katrina, were miffed the president left them out of his visit altogether.
“I’m greatly disappointed he’s not coming to Mississippi,” said Tommy Longo, mayor of Waveland, Miss., a town where almost every standing structure was destroyed or damaged. “There was no city hit harder than Waveland.”
White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said Obama is committed to Mississippi’s recovery as well.
“From transitioning people out of temporary disaster housing to rebuilding schools, roads and bridges, the Obama administration has invested critical resources in Mississippi’s rebuilding and recovery efforts and has worked to change the game on the ground for residents,” he said.