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Katrina anniversary: How well has recovery money been spent?

Money from charitable foundations and $142 billion in federal funds have produced a substantial recovery in metro New Orleans, says a report released ahead of hurricane Katrina anniversary.

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New Orleans still has $411 million in unspent federal Community Development Block Grants. Moreover, the Obama administration’s economic recovery program, which is providing stimulus funding for state projects nationwide, has sent more than $5 billion to Louisiana.

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Early on, even Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal gave credit to the administration for its efforts. But Obama, who during the 2008 presidential campaign criticized Mr. Bush for his handling of the Katrina catastrophe, has received widespread criticism in the region for his handling of the BP oil spill and the deep-water drilling moratorium that followed. A Washington Post-ABC News poll last month found that 73 percent of residents throughout the Gulf region disapproved of his job on the crisis. A poll conducted this summer by Louisiana State University found that 35 percent of residents in southern Louisiana rated his performance as not so good or poor, while 37 percent rated it as good or excellent.

“Obama’s ratings are generally higher in Louisiana, especially in New Orleans, but his rating in our poll was more positive than I expected,” says Kirby Goidel of LSU’s Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs. “His big problem was the spill and now it’s the [drilling] moratorium. There’s still significant worry about all this, with still a lot of uncertainty.”

Historian Lawrence Powell of Tulane University was critical of Obama’s grasp of political theater during his first visit to the city as president last year, but now says Obama has found his step.

“I think he’s righted himself and put together a good team and is doing better with his execution” says Professor Powell. “Many people here are criticizing the cleanup and the moratorium and calling this his Katrina. I think that’s wrong, but this is a difficult place right now. People want continual reassurance, but they also seem to want contrary messages. Some want to hear that the oil spill is the worst possible disaster; others that it’s not so bad, that we’re open for business.”

The triple whammy of Katrina, the oil spill, and most severe national recession in 50 years is a lot to recover from. Other problems, as well, are holding the city back, says Liu of the Brookings Institution. Among them: a low-growth economy dependent on a few shrinking industries, a workforce that isn't highly educated enough, high poverty, high crime, and eroding wetlands. Her report also notes that some of the upward trends in recovery statistics, such as median incomes and education levels, can be attributed in part to the tens of thousands of lower-income minorities who have not been able to return to New Orleans.

IN PICTURES: Hurricane Katrina five years later