Five things New Orleans wants from Obama

When President Obama speaks to New Orleans residents Thursday, they will likely tell him they need federal help to make the city more hurricane-proof and to fix a moonscape of post-Katrina potholes.

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS
President Barack Obama shakes hands with students during a visit to Martin Luther King Charter School during his first presidential visit to New Orleans Thursday.

Touching down in New Orleans for the first time as president Thursday, Barack Obama arrived in a city that still needs him.

In a tour and a town hall, Mr. Obama will doubtless see the returning signs of normalcy that mark New Orleans halfway through its promised 10-year recovery from the destruction of hurricane Katrina. But the city’s future is still tightly wound to the nation’s largess.

In many ways, it a mutual dependence: New Orleans isn’t just a boost for American cuisine and tourism, it's a key port, a primary center for oil and gas refinement and distribution, and a builder of American warships. The Louisiana Gulf Coast is integral to the nation's well-being, and federal money is integral to the New Orleans' economic prosperity.

Katrina has only tightened these bonds.

Obama made the mishandling of Katrina by Republicans a talking point in his successful campaign last year, and even Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal – usually a thorn to Obama – has given credit to the administration for some appointments and policies that have cut red tape.

But to thrive, New Orleans still needs help with five key aspects of the recovery, says John Biguenet, a heralded New Orleans writer whose trilogy of plays about Katrina's aftermath – "Rising Water," "Shotgun," and "Mold" – are now touring the US.

Storm protection. For New Orleans, Katrina wasn’t a natural disaster, but a manmade one. The Corps of Engineers has taken responsibility for the failure of the levees, and New Orleanians now want to see Obama push for a protection system that could stand up to a Category 5 storm.

Uncertainty about the levees is at the center of every personal and business decision made in the city. “It was a system waiting for disasater and which killed over 1,000 American citizens and destroyed an American city,” says Mr. Biguenet. “The Corps of Engineers is at the center of our anxiety."

Broken pipes. The salt water that inundated the city for weeks after Katrina passed seeped underground, rusting water and gas pipes and creating a moonscape of potholes. Some French Quarter restaurants can only use one oven because of the leaky gas lines, and one newly opened Post Office can't be reached by car because of bad roads. “Right now there’s not enough money to fix the infrastructure,” says Biguenet.

Get FEMA into shape. “No more Brownies,” Obama promised during the campaign, referring to to ousted FEMA director Michael Brown, the recipient of President Bush’s preemptive “You’re doing a heckuva job” comment that created lasting political damage for Bush. Seen as an obstructionist force since the storm, FEMA, under new director Craig Fugate, is streamlining its work under President Obama and cutting red tape in order to get fire stations and police stations reopened. But a deep prejudice against FEMA among New Orleanians linger and will be difficult to overcome.

Protect the legacy of Charity Hospital. How much money will the federal government give toward the $1.2 billion project to replace the Art Deco Charity Hospital. For New Orleans, the hospital is of more-then-ordinary importance. Not only did it take care of New Orleans’ poorest and educate its doctors, but it also could help in other ways, Biguenet says. The healthcare system plays a role in dealing with an increase in reported cases of psychological trauma from Katrina as well as the widespread drug addiction that, a few years ago, helped make New Orleans a more dangerous city to patrol than Baghdad.

Establish an 8/29 commission. “Many people have pressed for an 8/29 Commission like the 9/11 Commission to have a thorough investigation of what went on in terms of the failure to respond to Americans who were trapped on their roofs, as well as what happened to so much of the money that was appropriated, because so little of it actually arrived here,” says Biguenet.


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