By Mike Dorning
Chicago Tribune national correspondent
January 30, 2007
NEW ORLEANS — Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama blasted the Bush administration Monday for the slow pace of Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts, saying reconstruction no longer seems to be a White House priority.
“There is not a sense of urgency in this administration to get this done,” said the senator from Illinois. “You get a sense that will has been lacking in the last several months.”
Obama, the Senate’s only African-American member, was in New Orleans for a field hearing on Gulf Coast rebuilding conducted by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
In the days after Katrina hit, the devastation of New Orleans and the botched federal response turned into a dramatic international emblem for charges of incompetence in the administration and of indifference to the plight of poor people, particularly blacks and other minorities. The flooding and tardy rescue efforts had the greatest impact on low-income black residents, many of whom did not have personal transportation or financial resources to evacuate easily on their own.
The broken homes and vacant streets of the city’s flood-damaged neighborhoods remain a potent political symbol. Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards kicked off his campaign in December outside a damaged home in one hard-hit neighborhood.
After Monday’s field hearing, the Senate committee took a bus tour of the city’s Lower 9th Ward, a low-income black neighborhood where many ruined homes sit empty and bear the painted X-marks used in the chaotic weeks after the hurricane to show they had been searched for survivors.
Mayor compares city, Iraq
Testifying to the committee, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said he still doesn’t see “the will to really fix” his city and suggested that race was a factor.
“I think it’s more class than anything, but there’s racial issues associated with it also,” said Nagin, who is black.
Nagin complained that disputes with federal officials over the value of damaged buildings and cumbersome paperwork have slowed the money flow.
“And then I look at what we’re doing in Iraq and how we spend money at an unprecedented level there, how we can set up temporary hospitals and designate money to rebuild their economy, and we have this dance going on in New Orleans,” he said.
The hearing is one of the first that the Homeland Security Committee has scheduled since the Senate passed to Democratic control. No Republican members attended.
The session follows criticism of Bush for not including any mention of the New Orleans recovery effort in last week’s State of the Union address. Obama echoed that criticism, noting that Bush had traveled to the city shortly after the disaster and promised to do “what it takes . . . as long as it takes” to rebuild New Orleans.
But “17 months later, we heard not a single word, not one word in President Bush’s State of the Union address,” Obama said. “Those of us who are concerned all across the country wonder if we’re in danger of forgetting about New Orleans, and that’s shameful.”
Federal officials involved with rebuilding efforts defended their work in testimony before the committee. Donald Powell, federal coordinator for Gulf Coast reconstruction for the Department of Homeland Security, said that when the history of the recovery effort is written “it will also be a story of modern renaissance.”
“President Bush is committed to rebuilding the Gulf Coast and rebuilding it better and stronger,” Powell said.