President Barack Obama said Friday that Gulf Coast residents still struggling to rebuild three years after Hurricane Katrina "have not always received the support they deserve" from Washington.
He announced he was extending the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding, a position created by former President George W. Bush that was set to expire at the end of this month. Obama extended it through the rest of the current fiscal year, which goes to the end of September. Acting coordinator Paul Conway, a holdover from the Bush administration, will remain in the position until Obama chooses a replacement to head the office.
The president also is dispatching two Cabinet secretaries to visit New Orleans and other storm-ravaged parts of the Gulf Coast. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan will tour the region March 5-6.
Obama promised a stepped-up and sustained commitment to the region.
"The residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast who are helping rebuild are heroes who believe in their communities and they are succeeding despite the fact that they have not always received the support they deserve from the federal government," he said in a statement. "We must ensure that the failures of the past are never repeated."
Obama's words amounted to sharp though indirect criticism of Bush's oversight of the Katrina recovery. Bush was widely panned for his immediate response to the massive August 2005 storm that ripped through New Orleans and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. But Bush also has been the subject of intense criticism, though less high-profile, from those who said he never committed enough money or effort to rebuilding, and eventually appeared to lose interest in it altogether.
Katrina was blamed for more than 1,600 deaths and $41 billion in property damage.
The federal government has devoted more than $175 billion to the region since Katrina. It's unclear how much more money will be needed to fix the leftover damage. But nearly everyone agrees the federal government should continue investing heavily to significantly strengthen the region's levees and make other flood control improvements to prevent a repeat of Katrina's devastation.
Bush argued that additional reconstruction money wasn't necessary, because billions of those federal dollars remain unspent — bogged down in bureaucracy or tied up in long-range planning.
The same reasons were given for not including Katrina money in the recent economic stimulus package.