President Obama's Trip to New Orleans Draws Criticism -- Before He Even Arrives

Local residents complain that the four-hour visit is a "glorified flyover."

October 14, 2009, 5:00 PM

Oct. 15, 2009— -- Slightly more than four years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, President Obama is traveling to New Orleans today to fulfill a campaign promise to survey first-hand the city's recovery.

Obama will visit the Martin Luther King Charter School in the city's Lower 9th Ward, a neighborhood devastated by the floodwaters of Katrina after the city's levees were breached. The charter school was the first to be rebuilt following Katrina. On the second anniversary of the hurricane, former President George W. Bush visited the school and met with Louisiana education officials.

Obama will also hold a town hall meeting with members of the New Orleans community.

But before the president even steps foot on the ground in Louisiana, critics in the region have taken aim at the administration on several fronts: They fault him for waiting nine months before going to New Orleans, staying for only four hours and not going to any of the other states affected by the devastating 2005 storm, such as Mississippi and Alabama.

Tommy Longo, the mayor of Waveland, Miss., a town that was leveled by Katrina, said that Obama was "missing the Ground Zero of Katrina."

"We haven't whined. My citizens get up every day and they go to work, rebuilding their city from under the ground up, and it would mean a lot to them if they knew that they were on his mind," Longo said of the president. "It would mean a lot to everyone if he actually put his feet on the ground here in Waveland."

Even Louisiana officials have voiced displeasure with the trip and want more from the president.

"I think the trip could have been longer," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., in a television interview Wednesday. "But I want to say that people are not angry. If they're anything, they're just a little disappointed and frustrated, but understanding that the president has a lot on his plate.

The White House said that the trip demonstrates the president's "strong commitment to Gulf Coast rebuilding and recovery."

Administration officials noted that since taking office in January, their measures to speed up federal aid have already freed up more than $1 billion toward public infrastructure for Louisiana.

Others say that the White House deserves credit for the steps it has taken but may be making a public relations mistake with the short visit.

"I fear Obama is mismanaging the political theater of Katrina," Lawrence Powell of Tulane University told ABC News. "Granted, he and his administration deserve plaudits for unblocking recovery funds and cutting needless red tape, but the people down here can't be reassured often enough that the president 'gets' the problem -- the sluggish recovery, the vanishing coastline, the social 'Katrinas' that are making our mean streets even meaner and more dangerous."

Obama to Make Brief NOLA Appearance

After four hours in New Orleans, the president planned to fly across the country for a Democratic Party fundraiser in San Francisco Thursday night.

The image of former President George W. Bush peering out a window of Air Force One, looking at the damage to the region, is still fresh in the minds of Gulf Coast residents. Powell said the Obama administration is risking its own "glorified flyover."

"Why squander the political capital he has deservedly been garnering from previous good deeds by doing a "drive by" appearance in New Orleans, capped off with a fundraising meet-and-greet in San Francisco later that evening?" asked Powell, who said he voted for Obama. "It just doesn't play well."

The White House has strongly pushed back against the criticism by noting that the Gulf Coast region "has been only one of the most highly visited areas" for senior White House officials and cabinet members, according to White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

The president was to be accompanied on the trip today by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The three Cabinet members have all made trips to the region already this year.

In total, members of the president's Cabinet and senior administration officials have made 22 trips to Louisiana in 2009, but just five to Mississippi and four to Alabama.

Mississippi officials estimated at the time Katrina struck that Waveland took a harder hit from the wind and water of Katrina than any other town along the Gulf Coast. Nearly every home and business within a half mile of the coast was dragged away by the force of the storm.

Longo was quick to say his comments about the president skipping his town were not meant as a criticism to the residents and officials of New Orleans, who he has worked with on many issues since the storm, but a plea to have Obama see firsthand what is happening along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

"We're not asking him to come here to beat up on him, we're asking him to come and see tax dollars at work," he said.

"I think you can be judged on what you've said you're going to do for New Orleans and for the Gulf or you can be judged on what you've done and what you're continuing to do," Gibbs said Tuesday. "I think as people judge us on the latter, which is what matters to people that live in that region, I think they know the difference."

Before assuming the presidency, Obama made four trips to the region, including a campaign stop at Tulane University in New Orleans last February when he said the Bush administration failed to keep its promises to the people of the region to help them rebuild their communities and their lives.

"When I am president, I will start by restoring that most basic trust -- that your government will do what it takes to keep you safe," he pledged last year.

Gibbs said the president is less concerned about criticism than he is about "making sure that we're doing what has to be done to ensure that the Gulf is rebuilt and revitalized."

"The governor of Louisiana last week was quite complimentary of our efforts in ensuring that that region gets what they need," he said. "And we're immensely proud of that.

Turning the Page From the Bush Administration

The Bush administration's handling of the hurricane and its aftermath still looms large in the region.

The Obama administration has been quick to highlight the work it has done in its first year -- including $2.3 billion in Recovery Act money to fund recovery projects in Louisiana -- to signal a change from the past.

On a visit to Atlanta last month to survey flood damage, Vice President Joe Biden promised an effective and timely government response in contrast to the previous administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina.

"This is not going to happen overnight, it is not going to happen tomorrow, but it is going to happen," Biden said. "Look, we don't want anything like the past happening again."

Some policy analysts have credited the Obama administration with taking the right steps out of the gate in order to get money moving more quickly to those who needed it and making key Cabinet members more visible and involved in the process.

Amy Liu, deputy director of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, said that Obama made three critical appointments that have made a significant impact working with state and local officials dealing with the continued recovery efforts. They are Napolitano at DHS, Donovan at HUD and FEMA Director Craig Fugate.

"I think there are some really important accomplishments they have made in terms of getting the business of recovery right," said Liu, who has studied the region's post-Katrina recovery. "It is a process. He's accelerated the process of recovery and improved the responsiveness of recovery."

Liu added that, despite the criticism by the locals, the trip is far less important than what happens next, especially with the five-year anniversary coming next year. It is a critical date to a region that was promised a 10-year recovery plan.

"Can we now point to some visible improvements and game-changing reforms to say that we are not rebuilding the New Orleans of the past, but really using our public investments to put New Orleans on the path to true prosperity?" Liu asked.