Insisting he's "just getting started," President Barack Obama defended his administration Thursday against complaints from some residents of the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast that federal help in recovering from the 2005 disasters hasn't improved much since he took office.
"We've got a long way to go but we've made progress," Obama told a town hall at the University of New Orleans. "We're working as hard as we can and as quickly as we can."
As a candidate, Obama criticized former President George W. Bush's response to Katrina, when the government showed up late and unprepared and the Federal Emergency Management Agency became the object of widespread scorn.
The storm killed some 1,600 people in Louisiana and Mississippi — and damage has been estimated at roughly $40 billion. The damage is still starkly visible in New Orleans — in blighted neighborhoods of creaky houses, boarded-up businesses, structure after structure awaiting demolition and critical recovery work not yet started.
Obama wanted to use his first visit as president to the Gulf Coast to listen to residents' concerns about the recovery effort. And although most questions were on unrelated subjects, one man gave him an earful.
"I expected as much from the Bush administration, but why are we still being nickeled and dimed in our recovery?" asked Gabriel Bordenave, 29, of New Orleans.
"I wish I could write a blank check," Obama replied, promoting Bordenave to shout back, "Why not?"
Pointing to reconstruction
Obama claimed progress since he entered the White House in January. He cited reconstruction projects that have moved forward after having been stalled by disagreements over whether the state or federal government would foot the bill. FEMA is working "around the clock to clear up red tape and to eliminate bureaucracy on backlogs that go back years," he said.
According to FEMA, 76 of the 120 Louisiana reconstruction projects that were stuck at the beginning of his presidency have been resolved, sending more than $1.4 billion in additional federal aid to Louisiana.
"I know since a lot of these problems have been going on since Katrina, people understandably feel impatient," Obama told the crowd of several hundred who won tickets in an Internet lottery to attend. "On the other hand, a lot of these things are not going to be fixed tomorrow."
Obama said officials from his administration have made 35 trips to the Gulf Coast since March — and "not just to make appearances, but to listen and to learn and help you move forward."
In his opening remarks, Obama acknowledged residents' frustration about the pace of recovery. As evidence, he cited firefighters working from a trailer at a newly reopened school in the Lower Ninth ward that he visited earlier Thursday.
"It's clear how far we have to go before we can call this recovery a success," Obama said, noting sewers and roads that still need repair, houses and hospitals that are still vacant and schools and neighborhoods still waiting to thrive.
"I promise you this ... we will not forget about New Orleans. We are going to keep on working. We will not forget about the Gulf Coast," Obama said, adding later: "I'm just getting started. I'm not tired."
Better emergency preparation?
He also promised better emergency preparation so that the kind of devastation wrought by the hurricane is never repeated. And he announced a new working group to coordinate restoration projects across the Gulf Coast.
Obama spent fewer than four hours in New Orleans before heading to San Francisco for a Democratic National Committee fundraiser. The brief visit brought some criticism, but New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin defended the president.
"People say he's going to be here a short little time, that's true," Nagin said. "Don't be fooled. This administration is focused on New Orleans."
The administration's recovery efforts have drawn praise from Republicans, too, including Gov. Bobby Jindal. Jindal has credited Obama's team with bringing a more practical and flexible approach to the process. "There's a sense of momentum and a desire to get things done," he said in August.