In New Orleans, Uneven Recovery Awaits Obama President Obama will visit New Orleans Thursday to review recovery efforts more than four years after Hurricane Katrina. Residents say much of the city remains in survival mode. But by most accounts, the pace of recovery has improved under the Obama administration.
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In New Orleans, Uneven Recovery Awaits Obama

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In New Orleans, Uneven Recovery Awaits Obama

In New Orleans, Uneven Recovery Awaits Obama

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

We begin this hour in New Orleans in advance of President Obama's trip there. Thursday's trip will be his first visit as president. Mr. Obama plans to hold a town meeting and check out progress of the recovery after Hurricane Katrina. There have been some complaints that the one day trip is too short. Today, the White House dismissed that criticism, saying the President's priority is to see that the Gulf is rebuilt and revitalized.

NPR's Debbie Elliott checked in with New Orleans residents to see how the recovery is going.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: It was early in 2008 when Mr. Obama told that enthusiastic crowd at Tulane University that his administration would restore their trust in government.

President BARACK OBAMA: This will be a priority of my presidency. And I will make it clear to members of my administration that responsibilities don't end in places like the Ninth Ward, they begin in places like the Ninth Ward.

(Soundbite of applause)

ELLIOTT: Now, Ninth Ward residents have something to show him.

Ms. VERA McFADDEN (President, Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Council): First of all, we (unintelligible) the infrastructure, the streets.

ELLIOTT: Vera McFadden is president of the Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Council. She takes me on the tour she would like to give President Obama.

Ms. McFADDEN: This is one of the main thoroughfares on this side. This is Galvez Street. You can hardly pass.

ELLIOTT: Grass and weeds have grown over the road. McFadden drives and neighbor June Sanchez is in the backseat. They 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.

Ms. McFADDEN: 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.

ELLIOTT: The deeper we drive into the neighborhood, the fewer homes have been rebuilt. And they are sandwiched between overgrown lots, where rats scurry in the scrub and mosquitoes swarm make you get out of the car.

Ms. McFADDEN: Look at the area. You know, it's been said that we're coming back, we're coming back. But when you ride down here and actually look to see what's going on, you wonder about that.

ELLIOTT: By some estimates, less than 20 percent of the Lower Ninth's population is back. That compares to about 75 percent citywide. For those who do return, June Sanchez says it's a struggle.

Ms. JUNE SANCHEZ: We do not have a drugstore in this area. We do not have a supermarket in this area. We do not have any type of retail stores.

ELLIOTT: There's no community center, no Head Start. Before Katrina, there were five schools, today, only one - the Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology.

President Obama will make a stop here on Thursday. After Katrina, authorities wanted to tear down the damaged school. But residents worked to reopen it. They're looking forward to sharing that story with the president. Willie Calhoun Jr. is with a local community development group.

Mr. WILLIE CALHOUN JR.: Everybody think that we're sitting around with a handout, waiting for somebody to give us something. 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.

ELLIOTT: What the president 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. But that doesn't mean the city is whole, says Xavier University sociologist Silas Lee.

Professor SILAS LEE (Sociology, 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, when in actuality it is not. The people - the residents of this region, they are still in survival mode.

ELLIOTT: But by most accounts, the pace of progress has improved under the Obama administration. Even Republican Governor Bobby Jindal's recovery chief, Paul Rainwater, says the state's rocky relationship with the federal government is better than it used to be.

Mr. PAUL RAINWATER (Louisiana Recovery Authority): 2009 has been a very different feel to it, very much a partnership.

ELLIOTT: In all, Louisiana has received more than $75 billion for Hurricane recovery. Rainwater shows me the first school rebuilt with FEMA money.

Mr. RAINWATER: We're at Langston Hughes Elementary and Middle School, it's a charter school. When the president comes down, one of the things we're going to show him is the renaissance that's occurring in schools around New Orleans, it's amazing.

(Soundbite of cheering)

ELLIOTT: Now, the state is seeking more federal money for schools and health care. It also wants up to a billion dollars for coastal-restoration projects, and is trying to get the Army Corps of Engineers to embark on a more ambitious levee system, Rainwater says, one that could withstand a category five Hurricane.

Mr. RAINWATER: You know, 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 not.

ELLIOTT: These are all issues Mr. Obama talked about during his campaign. On the fourth anniversary of Katrina, editors at the New Orleans Times-Picayune reminded the president that storm-weary residents are counting on him. Political columnist Stephanie Grace says this week's visit will go a long way.

Ms. STEPHANIE GRACE (Political Columnist, JPG Times-Picayune): I think it will say that this is still a national priority that we haven't forgotten. Washington hasn't forgotten.

ELLIOTT: The question is whether President Obama will come with some of the additional help that Louisiana has been lobbying for.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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