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Obama Visits New Orleans to Gauge Recovery

October 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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President Obama flew to New Orleans on Thursday to assess the city's recovery efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Margaret Warner reports.
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JIM LEHRER: President Obama went to New Orleans today to check the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Katrina. He praised the city’s people for not giving up, and he promised again to speed the process.

Margaret Warner has our lead story report.

MARGARET WARNER: When Air Force One touched down late this morning, it brought President Obama to New Orleans for the first time since taking office. He visited five times during the presidential campaign. Then, he roundly criticized the Bush administration for the way it responded to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the pace of rebuilding since then.

U.S PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It’s not acceptable that federal money is not reaching communities that need it, or that Louisiana officials have filled out millions of forms just to get reconstruction funds. It is time to cut the red tape, so that the federal government is a partner, not an opponent, in getting things done.

MARGARET WARNER: The federal government has been heavily involved in the region since Katrina swept through, killing 1,600 people and wreaking $40 billion of damage across the Gulf Coast.

In all, Washington committed tens of billions of dollars to rebuilding the region before Mr. Obama took office and another $1.4 billion since then.

Today, Mr. Obama’s first stop highlighted New Orleans’ progress and pain, a reopened school across from a community center slated for demolition.

BARACK OBAMA: Because everybody worked hard, everybody kept hopeful, everybody was determined to rebuild, you now see just a school that is doing much better than it was ever doing before the storm.

MARGARET WARNER: The school is in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, the low-lying mostly African-American area that was inundated by the storm surge from Katrina.

It was the last portion of the city to reopen to residents, and abandoned buildings still blight the landscape. Overall, the city of New Orleans is much smaller than it was, just over 300,000 people, compared to 455,000 before Katrina.

But, at a town hall today, the president hailed the city’s comeback efforts.

BARACK OBAMA: There are still people coming to this city, especially young people, who are committed to its future, who are ready and willing to withstand what storms may come, eager to rebuild something better in place of what was.

Frustration with rebuilding efforts

Anthony Patton
Marketing and Media Executive
Look, I will shoot straight with you. The recovery has been terrible. It's been way too slow.

MARGARET WARNER: At the same time, Mr. Obama heard continuing frustration with how long it's taking to rebuild.

MAN: Why is it, four years after Katrina, we're still fighting with the federal government for money to repair our devastated city?

I mean, I expected as much from the Bush administration, but why are we still being nickeled and dimed in our recovery?

BARACK OBAMA: I know since a lot of these problems have been going on since Katrina happened, people understandably feel impatient. On the other hand, these things were not all going to be fixed tomorrow.

My expectation is -- is that by the -- by the time that my term is over, you guys are going to look back and you're going to say, "This was a responsive administration on health care, on housing, on education, that actually made sure that the money flowed and that things got done the way they were supposed to get done."

MARGARET WARNER: The president was warmly received at today's event. But there was also criticism that the visit was too brief to do any good.

Republican Congressman Steve Scalise dismissed it as a drive-through daiquiri summit. And some officials and newspapers in neighboring Mississippi complained the president bypassed their state.

What is the real state of New Orleans today, four years after Hurricane Katrina? For that, we check back with two New Orleanians we have talked to regularly since the storm, Jim Amoss, editor of The Times- Picayune newspaper, and Anthony Patton, a former member of the mayor's Bring New Orleans Back Commission. He's also president and founder of Do-WAP agency, a marketing and media firm.

Welcome to you both.

Jim Amoss, so how do you think New Orleans is doing now? I mean, what's back; what's not?

JIM AMOSS, editor, New Orleans Times-Picayune: Well, the things that are -- that make a city a vibrant place and a place that you want to live in and a place you want to visit, for that matter, are all in place.

Just one measure to throw out, we have more restaurants now in this city that's famous for its food than we had before the storm. And what's psychologically important right now is that we seem to have made it unscathed through a hurricane season. I can't tell you how -- how good that feels.

The things that are missing and the president didn't address today were the long-term protection for Louisiana's coast that is not only vital to us, but also to the nation.

MARGARET WARNER: And -- and, Mr. Patton, how do -- how do you see it? I mean, is the -- how is the recovery going?

ANTHONY PATTON, marketing and media executive: Look, I will shoot straight with you.

The recovery has been terrible. It's been way too slow. And residents have basically, from their own backs, their own support, and the thousands and thousands of -- of countless volunteers from all across this country are the only reason we are in the position that we're in at this time. And it's way too slow.

I agree with what we just heard about some of the restaurants and that kind of thing, but the small business community is in peril. It -- without tourism, we're dying. And any other service or business industry, besides maybe construction, is -- is in a really difficult place.

And I just want to challenge the people out there to know that don't think, because four years have gone by, that we're back in a good place. We're not at all. And -- and we could use the support that we were supposed to get four years ago.

The plight of the poor

Jim Amoss
Editor, New Orleans Times-Picayune
People who are less affluent just haven't had the means to rebuild.

MARGARET WARNER: Jim Amoss, I know you said you thought a lot was back, but would you say the recovery's been uneven, if you move from neighborhood to neighborhood?

JIM AMOSS: I would say it is very much dependent on what the -- the means of the people in the neighborhoods were. And poorer neighbors have been at a huge disadvantage, compared to more affluent ones.

People who are less affluent just haven't had the means to rebuild. And you see that in the neighborhoods where there's still extensive blight, where, in some cases, there's only one house per block. And that extends throughout the city of New Orleans.

MARGARET WARNER: And what would you say to Anthony Patton's comment that -- that it's really just depended a lot on volunteers, but that the outside help hasn't been as great as promised?

JIM AMOSS: OK. Well, I would agree that there's been a huge outpouring of -- of volunteer effort, both on the part of ordinary New Orleanians and volunteers from around the country that continue to -- to stream into our city.

And they have been the most effective in lifting the city and making a difference. The federal dollars only really began to flow this year. We have seen a tremendous amount in storm protection, $3 billion in contracts awarded this year alone. That doesn't quickly translate into revitalizing small businesses and -- and helping people get back to a city, when they don't have the means to rebuild.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Patton, why is -- what is the hang up with the federal funds coming in? You heard President Obama was challenged, particularly on why the local hospital hadn't been rebuilt...

ANTHONY PATTON: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: ... and, I think this young man worked at a community college, they were having trouble. What's the problem?

ANTHONY PATTON: Well, I think a lot of it has to do with, you know, the planning processes, first of all.

I think New Orleans is beginning to face planning fatigue, and not just New Orleans, but the southern region of Louisiana and Mississippi. And, so, we're trying to, I think, get all of our -- all of our ducks in a row with the planning processes, whether we're planning the school districts, whether we're planning health and hospitals, whether we're planning the master plan of New Orleans. And, so, that's been a very cumbersome, long process.

The second thing would be the communication between our political leaders and -- and those that ultimately write those checks, i.e., the president of the United States. You know, I have said it to my friends and we have talked about it. Louisiana never just -- we -- we just can't ever seem to be on track, you know?

When we have a Republican president in George Bush, then we have a Democratic governor who doesn't get along with them. When we have a Democratic president in Barack Obama, we have a Republican governor who can't get along with him. And we just -- the people of this community tend to constantly be put in this tug-of-war fight between government that really, at the end of the day, we're affected the most, because the dollars don't come home.

Higher employment rates in the city

Anthony Patton
Marketing and Media Executive
You're looking at a pseudo-economy in New Orleans that, if...the infrastructure was here as before, around 450,000 to 500,000 residents, we would probably be pretty normal to what's happening across the country.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Amoss, let me ask you about one anomaly I saw in the statistics, which is actually that the unemployment rate in New Orleans is 2 percent lower than the national average. Is that the case? And, if so why?

JIM AMOSS: It is.

And I think it's largely attributable to some of the infrastructure and flood protection and recovery dollars that have -- that have flowed into this area. And they mask some of the fundamental problems. Once these dollars stop flowing, once we have rebuilt all those things, we're still going to be faced with -- with an educational system that is on the mend, but not there yet, and a problem with jobs that has plagued this community for a long time.

MARGARET WARNER: Let's turn from...

ANTHONY PATTON: Yes, and I think it's also important to...

MARGARET WARNER: Go ahead.

ANTHONY PATTON: I want to make a comment on it.

I think it's also important, not only is there a pseudo-economy happening, but let's not forget about those 150,000 people who are not back in the community, who don't feel welcomed back, who don't have resources to get back, who don't have housing when they do come back.

So, I think that you're looking at a pseudo-economy in New Orleans that, if the -- the infrastructure was here as before, around 450,000 to 500,000 residents, we would probably be pretty normal to what's happening across the country.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, explain that, Jim Amoss. Why is the city's population a third smaller? Did people not want to come back or could they not afford to come back?

JIM AMOSS: I think, for the most part, I mean, this is a city that has a tremendous hold on its citizens, and one of the lowest turnover rates. People are born here and stay here for life. So, it takes quite a bit to get a New Orleanian to move away permanently.

I think most of it is -- is people who simply do not have the means, including, after getting whatever federal and state help there was, to -- to rebuild and to come back to their neighborhoods. I don't think it's for any lack of wanting to. And then, after four years, you know, it's very difficult to uproot yourself once your kids have settled somewhere, or you have found jobs and the like.

MARGARET WARNER: So, has that changed the demographics of the city, and, therefore, the character of the city?

I will ask you, Mr. Patton.

What's left to do?

Jim Amoss
Editor, New Orleans Times-Picayune
The big missing ingredient is that our coast is gradually eroding away.

ANTHONY PATTON: Well, I agree with Jim that, you know, this is a very resilient community. I mean, the people here should be praised in -- in how they have stood back up on their own two and -- and really tried to -- to get themselves back to where they used to be.

But -- but there are -- I mean, frankly speaking, there are people who would love to be back in New Orleans who are not. And the second part is, Barack Obama mentioned in his earlier conversation what I heard on the clip about all the young people moving in. But let's not forget about all the young people moving out.

You know, my demographic probably more than any, that late-20-to-early-40 crowd, who has young kids, who really can do a lot of the rebuilding, are just getting a little bit fed up, and they're starting to -- to move to larger cities, where there are better opportunities.

And -- and I think that's really important, that you -- we stop the movement of people out of the community, and then start fixing those problems, and then bring new people into the community.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Amoss, actually, let me ask you one quick final question that we should touch on.

How much better protected is New Orleans today from a storm of Katrina-size magnitude, briefly, if you could?

JIM AMOSS: Sure.

The fundamental difference between now and then is that no longer can water enter the canals whose flood walls gave way. And that -- that's a pretty basic thing. The big missing ingredient is that our coast is gradually eroding away, and it means that, every time a new storm comes, it -- it reaches closer to our backyards, because the Gulf of Mexico is that much closer to them.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Jim Amoss and Anthony Patton, thank you both.

JIM AMOSS: Thank you.

ANTHONY PATTON: Thank you.

JIM AMOSS: Pleasure.

JIM LEHRER: You can see how Louisiana Public Broadcasting covered today's town hall meeting. Just follow a link on our Web site, NewsHour.PBS.org.