Questions remain after Obama’s New Orleans visit

Published 12:28 am Sunday, October 18, 2009

A day after an enthusiastic, almost-gushing crowd met President Barack Obama on his first visit to New Orleans since taking office, some in this still-suffering, hurricane-struck city wondered when platitudes and political speech would give way to greater progress.

Among them was recent law school graduate Gabe Bordenave, 29, who criticized what he called nickel-and-diming by the Federal Emergency Management Agency over critical rebuilding projects, like a downtown hospital shuttered since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

“I don’t want to hear how problems are being solved,” Bordenave said Friday. “I want to know why the problems are not solved.”

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Obama vowed that Gulf Coast rebuilding would be a priority of his administration. After taking office in January, he dispatched top officials — including Cabinet secretaries — to figure out how to get federal recovery money to state and local governments more quickly.

By the time Obama was elected, progress was already being made in rebuilding levees, schools and homes, but it was often overshadowed by bureaucratic holdups and hard feelings among government officials about the response to Katrina and the slow pace of the massive recovery.

At a town hall meeting Thursday, Obama cited progress in areas like taking on corruption in the local housing authority and reducing the number of storm victims living in federally supplied trailers. His administration says it has made changes that have helped free up more than $1 billion in FEMA recovery money for the state and cleared dozens of long-standing funding disputes.

That’s only a dent in the state’s lengthy backlog of complaints and projects, and rules limit the federal government’s obligation and how money can be spent.

In response to a question from Bordenave about the former Charity hospital, which once provided indigent care and was a main training hospital, Obama replied that he wished he “could just write a check” but “we’ve got to go through procedures.” The dispute over the hospital’s funding will be decided by a panel of judges in arbitration by early next year.

Obama did make one bold pledge, in a city that has heard plenty over the years: “And so, I promise you this: Whether it’s me coming down here or my Cabinet or other members of my administration, we will not forget about New Orleans. We are going to keep on working.”

That was enough for Tangee Wall, who is fighting to keep officials from forgetting her neighborhood, eastern New Orleans. Once the center of the city’s black middle class, it is now pocked by decaying apartment buildings and empty fast-food and box stores.

From her seat on the risers behind Obama, she said she watched him carefully and could see his sincerity.

“He has hit the ground running,” she said, and the steps already taken show it’s “not just rhetoric.”

For others, it’s not enough. Sandy Rosenthal, the founder and executive director of, said her disappointment with Obama’s visit was intense, mostly because he referred to Katrina as a “disaster of nature.”

Rosenthal said the levee failures that sent water pouring into the city prove it was a manmade disaster, too. Obama’s failure to recognize that, she said, felt like a tactic to show that recovery money was coming from “the realm of largesse and generosity” rather than a government obligation to help New Orleans.

Still, this is an Obama city. He carried it in last fall’s election while Republican Sen. John McCain won the state. And T-shirts bearing his image have been fixtures in shops that once peddled shirts bearing no shortage of creative uses for the acronym FEMA.

Expectations are high. This is also a city in desperate want of a leader — Mayor Ray Nagin has been a complete disappointment for many who believe he has lacked vision and squandered opportunities to build the “bigger, better” New Orleans promised when they decided to reinvest in their homes or move here to be a part of history.

Bordenave, who considers himself a moderate Democrat, acknowledged the recovery does not fall on just the federal government’s shoulders; it’s a shared responsibility. But with the city mired in financial problems, if you’re the mayor “what do you do?” he said. “That’s why I really turn to the federal government for help.”

Others, like Terence Butler, are willing to give the president more time.

“I guess they’re trying to do what they can,” said the 52-year-old painter, speaking through an iron-wrought door in a section of Gentilly where he said crime is a problem and reminders of Katrina’s devastation — the FEMA trailer, empty house with overgrown yard and blue tarp strips flapping on a roof — are hard to miss.

Said Butler: “He did give a good speech.”