Obama earns early praise for Katrina efforts

US Senator Obama speaks with activist in New Orleans
During his campaign for president, Barack Obama speaks with activist Mama Dee outside a church in New Orleans, La., on August 26, 2007. Lee Celano / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama pledged to right the wrongs he said bogged down efforts to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Seven months into the job, he's earning high praise from some unlikely places.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., says Obama's team has brought a more practical and flexible approach. Many local officials offer similar reviews. Even Doug O'Dell, former President George W. Bush's recovery coordinator, says the Obama administration's "new vision" appears to be turning things around.

Not too long ago, Jindal said in a telephone interview, Louisiana governors didn't have "very many positive things" to say about the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But Jindal said he had a lot of respect for the current FEMA chief, Craig Fugate, and his team. "There is a sense of momentum and a desire to get things done," the governor said.

Added O'Dell: "I think the results are self-evident."

The retired Marine general served what he calls a frustrating stint as Bush's recovery coordinator last year. "What people have said to me is that for whatever reason, problems that were insurmountable under previous leadership are getting resolved quickly," O'Dell said.

"And I really hate to say that because (the top FEMA leaders) in my time there were good, hardworking, earnest men, but they were also the victims of their own bureaucracy."

It's not that Obama has miraculously mended the Gulf Coast since Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005. The storm killed more than 1,600 people in Louisiana and Mississippi and caused more than $40 billion in property damage. Hurricane Rita followed nearly a month later, with billions of dollars in additional damage and at least 11 more deaths.

On the fourth anniversary of Katrina, many communities remain broken, littered with boarded-up houses and overgrown vacant lots. Hundreds of projects — including critical needs such as sewer lines, fire stations and a hospital — are entangled in the bureaucracy or federal-local disputes over who should pick up the tab.

Like Bush, Obama has critics who say he's not moving aggressively enough.

Chris Kromm, director of the Institute for Southern Studies, an advocacy group, said the coast is "still waiting for Washington to show leadership."

In many areas, such as long-term coastal rehabilitation and rebuilding levees, it's too early to determine whether Obama will live up to the many promises he made.

But on several fronts, there is evidence of progress.

Victor Ukpolo, chancellor of Southern University at New Orleans, said the administration has been able to "move mountains" for his school, virtually wiped out by Katrina and the breached levees.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has visited the campus twice and awarded $32 million to replace four buildings.

"It's really awesome," Ukpolo said. "There's been so much progress."

Tommy Longo, mayor of Waveland, Miss., said it got so bad toward the end of Bush's tenure that "you almost couldn't get them to return a phone call, and you certainly weren't going to get them to make any big decisions."

"It has been refreshing to be back working with people who are hungry and want to make a difference," said Longo, a Democrat. "Who knows, a few years from now, at the end of Obama's term it may be back to the same ol', same ol', but it is refreshing now."

Obama backed up his pledge to name an experienced FEMA administrator by appointing Fugate, a career emergency management professional from Florida. By contrast, Bush's director was Michael Brown, a lawyer who worked at the International Arabian Horse Association. He resigned after Katrina.

In half a year, Obama's team says it has cleared at least 75 projects that were in dispute, including libraries, schools and university buildings. The administration has relied on a new, independent arbitration panel, and assigned senior advisers to focus on the rebuilding.

The administration recently reversed a FEMA rule that barred communities from building fire stations and other critical projects in vulnerable areas. Local officials said the rule could have effectively killed off some places.

The Bush administration's flat-footed response to Katrina left a lasting stain on Bush's legacy, and the sluggish pace of the long-term recovery has drawn continued criticism.

Local officials and civic leaders long have complained about the changing cast of FEMA representatives who review project worksheets and demand repeated inspections or additional paperwork. In some cases, agency workers have subtracted costs that local officials thought were settled.

Along with battling red tape, community officials say FEMA often stubbornly refused to pay for work that should have qualified for federal aid.

BILOXI, MS - SEPTEMBER 2: U.S. President George W. Bush hugs hurricane victim Sandra Patterson, whose home was destroyed, September 2, 2005 in Biloxi, Mississippi. Bush visited the town of Biloxi, in parts completely devastated, during his tour of the Gulf Coast to view damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)Win Mcnamee / Getty Images North America

Under Bush, FEMA frequently argued that local governments viewed the storms as a chance to get rundown buildings replaced with federal dollars. Delays also were blamed on disarray at the local and state levels, with some projects stalled until local officials could decide their own priorities or provide documentation to make their case.

Critics countered that some Bush officials seemed more concerned with preventing fraud than getting people back on their feet.

Jindal and Paul Rainwater, the governor's recovery coordinator who once stormed out of a meeting with Bush officials in frustration, said plenty of headaches remain. Overall, Jindal gives the Obama administration an "incomplete" because there is so much still to do. A glaring example is the shuttered, 20-story Charity Hospital, which served New Orleans' poor and uninsured. The state claims it is owed nearly $500 million to replace it.

Despite high-level pleas, FEMA has denied the claim under both administrations, saying Charity wasn't properly guarded against further decay after the storm. The agency has offered $150 million, the most it says it can do. The Obama administration rejected a request to replace the hospital using economic stimulus money.

Jindal and Rainwater said the previous administration often wouldn't recognize new information or acknowledge there were real disputes. Sometimes, Rainwater said, Bush officials seemed blind to the devastation around them and said they had to be good stewards of public money.

"They never recognized the enormity of what we're working through," Rainwater said. "We're not just trying to rebuild buildings here but entire communities."

"That's the difference" under Obama, Rainwater said. "It's the recognition. ... We're all able to sit down around the table."