Mario Tama/Getty Images
Construction crews work on a new home built by the Make it Right Foundation in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, May 2009. More than four years after Hurricane Katrina, much of the city remains in survival mode.
Construction crews work on a new home built by the Make it Right Foundation in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, May 2009. More than four years after Hurricane Katrina, much of the city remains in survival mode. Mario Tama/Getty Images
President Obama travels to New Orleans this week for a town hall meeting — and for a look at the recovery in the city battered by Hurricane Katrina four years ago.
It will be Obama's first visit since the presidential campaign, when, as a candidate, he had a long list of promises for the city.
In early 2008, Obama told an enthusiastic crowd at Tulane University in New Orleans that his administration would restore their trust in government.
"This will be a priority of my presidency," he said at the time. "And I will make it clear to members of my administration that their responsibilities don't end in places like the Ninth Ward — they begin in places like the Ninth Ward."
Little Progress In Some Areas
Now, residents of the Ninth Ward, which was devastated by Katrina, have something to show him.
Vera McFadden, president of the Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Council, would like to give Obama a tour. She points to Galvez Street, one of the main thoroughfares in the area, and notes that you can hardly pass. Grass and weeds have grown over the road. She says any overhaul must start with the infrastructure — the streets.
McFadden and her neighbor June Sanchez say parts of the neighborhood don't look much different than they did after a levee breach sent Hurricane Katrina's storm surge rushing through the streets. Rainwater backs up in the road, cables dangle from utility poles, and kudzu vines have overtaken stop signs.
Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Council President Vera McFadden would like President Obama to see the blight in her neighborhood when he visits New Orleans this week. She says some areas don't look much different than they did after Hurricane Katrina.
Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Council President Vera McFadden would like President Obama to see the blight in her neighborhood when he visits New Orleans this week. She says some areas don't look much different than they did after Hurricane Katrina. Debbie Elliott/NPR
"I've lived down here all my life, and some blocks I don't even know where I'm at, because of the grass and no street signs," McFadden says.
Deeper into the neighborhood, fewer homes have been rebuilt. Homes are sandwiched between overgrown lots, where rats scurry in the scrub and mosquitoes swarm.
"It's been said that we're coming back, we're coming back," McFadden says. "But when you ride down here and actually see what's going on, you wonder about that."
By some estimates, less than 20 percent of the Lower Ninth's population is back, compared with 75 percent citywide.
Sanchez says it is a struggle for those who do return.
"We do not have a drugstore in this area. We do not have a supermarket in this area," Sanchez says. "We do not have any type of retail stores."
There is no community center or Head Start, the federal government program that provides education and services to low-income children. Before Katrina, there were five schools. Now, there is only one: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology, which Obama will visit Thursday.
After Katrina, authorities wanted to tear down the damaged school, but residents worked to reopen it. They are looking forward to sharing that story with the president.
"Everybody thinks that we're sitting around waiting for a handout, waiting for somebody to give us something," says Willie Calhoun Jr., founder of the New Life Intracoastal Community Development Corp. "No, we've taken the initiative to raise the money to build a school in this area. Hopefully, the president will be able to hear and acknowledge what the residents of this area are doing."
What Obama will find in New Orleans is an uneven recovery. Areas frequented by tourists — the French Quarter and the Garden District, for instance — are up and running. That, however, doesn't mean the city is whole, says Silas Lee, a sociologist at Xavier University.
"Nationally, a lot of people, just because they don't see it on the news every night, they feel that the recovery is complete," Lee says, "when in actuality it is not. The residents of this region, they are still in survival mode."
Alondis Jackson — better known simply as "Peaches" by many of her acquaintances — has lived in abandoned homes and buildings in New Orleans for at least two years. She sleeps with a meat cleaver under her mattress — just in case. Read her story.
But by most accounts, the pace of progress has improved under the Obama administration. Even Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal's recovery chief, Paul Rainwater, says Louisiana's rocky relationship with the federal government is better than it used to be.
"A couple of times, I have just gotten up and pushed my chair under the table and walked out, but I will say that in 2009 we haven't done that; 2009 has a very different feel to it — very much a partnership," Rainwater says.
In all, Louisiana has received more than $75 billion for hurricane recovery.
The Langston Hughes Elementary and Middle School, a charter school, is the first school rebuilt with public assistance money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Rainwater says he wants to show Obama the renaissance that is occurring in schools around New Orleans.
Louisiana is seeking more federal money for schools and health care. It also wants up to $1 billion for coastal-restoration projects, and it is trying to get the Army Corps of Engineers to embark on a more ambitious levee system, which, Rainwater says, can withstand a Category 5 hurricane.
"We can talk about economic development, we can talk about new schools, we can talk about health care, but if the levees don't protect the area, then it's for naught," he says.
These are all issues Obama talked about during his campaign.
On the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, editors at the New Orleans Times-Picayune reminded the president that storm-weary residents were counting on him.
Political columnist Stephanie Grace says this week's visit will go a long way.
"I think it will say that this is still a national priority," Grace says, "that we haven't forgotten. Washington hasn't forgotten."
The question is whether Obama will come with some of the additional help that Louisiana has been lobbying for.