NEW ORLEANS — President Barack Obama, who accused the Bush administration of standing by “while a major American city drowns,” flew to New Orleans Thursday to hear directly about its 4-year-long struggle to recover from Hurricane Katrina.
It was Obama’s first visit since he assumed the presidency from Bush. He flew in at midday to listen to city residents describe the hardships they’ve encountered since that harrowing time in the summer of 2005 when Katrina ravaged much of the Gulf Coast.
Some 1,600 people were killed in Louisiana and Mississippi — and damages have been estimated at roughly $40 billion. It’s a cost more starkly visible in the blighted neighborhoods of creaky houses, boarded-up businesses, structure after structure awaiting demotion and critical recovery work not yet commenced.
The storm was a natural disaster that also turned into a political one for President George W. Bush; the Federal Emergency Management Agency was widely criticized for a slow response, and local officials have complained that the Bush administration often stubbornly refused to pay for work that should have qualified for federal aid.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, has credited Obama’s team with bringing a more practical and flexible approach to the reconstruction process. “There’s a sense of momentum and a desire to get things done,” he said in August.
Some residents have criticized Obama for making such a brief visit — he was expected to be in and out of the city in just a few hours — and people in Mississippi, which took a direct hit from Katrina, were miffed that the president was skipping them.
After the visit, Obama was scheduled to head west to San Francisco to help raise money for the Democratic Party.
“I’m greatly disappointed he’s not coming to Mississippi,” said Tommy Longo, mayor of Waveland, Miss., where almost every standing structure was destroyed or damaged. “There was no city hit harder than Waveland.”
The White House said that Obama is committed to Mississippi’s recovery as well.
Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said Obama had seen the damage on past visits. Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Louisiana, Burton also said that Obama had sent more Cabinet secretaries and other administration officials to the Gulf Coast region than virtually any other corner of the country.
Burton also said the administration has freed up billions of dollars in aid for the region and has helped cut red tape.
With Thursday’s visit, Obama “is looking forward to hearing directly from the people of New Orleans about their questions, concerns, thoughts about the recovery efforts, what they’re seeing and what the administration can do,” Burton said. “The president is here to listen.”
When Obama became president, FEMA said more than 120 Louisiana reconstruction projects were stalled in federal-state disputes. Since January, 76 of those have been resolved. But there’s still much work remaining.
While it’s Obama’s first trip to New Orleans, it’s the administration’s 18th trip to the city. Administration officials also have made 35 trips to the Gulf Coast since March.
By the time Obama took office, the federal government had committed more than $126 billion to rebuilding Gulf Coast communities affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. In the past nine months, the administration says more than $1.4 billion in additional federal aid has gone toward repairing and rebuilding Louisiana and $160 million more to Mississippi.
But the impact from Katrina is still visible in places like New Orleans. Across from a school Obama planned to visit, firefighters work out of a trailer and a storm-shuttered community center awaits demolition.
Elieen Sullivan/The Associated Press