- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — Gulf Coast recovery efforts are the forgotten political story.

The government’s ineptitude in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is a good red meat applause line for the Democratic presidential hopefuls, but the residents still sifting through broken lives in Mississippi and Louisiana stopped waiting for help from politicians long ago.

“We struggle for a voice. I’m not sure if anybody else is listening, and it may take a Katrina in their neighborhood for them to listen,” said Jean Larroux, a Presbyterian pastor and Bay St. Louis, Miss. native who returned home two years ago to work to restore the community.

“Let Katrina hit Kennebunkport,” he said. “I imagine that we wouldn’t have to pray a whole lot about [getting them help]. I’m really not bitter. I’m just opinionated.”

As Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama campaign across the country, they consistently decry the “outrage” of millions without health care or the “unfunded mandate” of No Child Left Behind law, but rarely mention Katrina. They made some fleeting references to the storm while campaigning in Mississippi this month.

“They’re basically talking about the economy right now and the war but I haven’t heard anybody say anything about the efforts as far as the Gulf South, other than when they came here and spoke,” said John Kevin Garner, 39, who is helping his father rebuild their home in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward. “They worry about Iraq so much, but don’t worry about the people.”

While most said a new president would be an improvement over President Bush, Gulf Coast residents The Washington Times met from Biloxi, Miss., to New Orleans said they hear little from Mrs. Clinton, of New York, and Mr. Obama, of Illinois.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin agreed. “I think they are, I won’t say afraid, but a little hesitant to tackle the issues” that still confront the city “and the lack of preparedness to deal with future natural disasters,” he told The Times last week in Washington. “The candidates are a little hesitant about fully embracing our dilemma. I would like to hear more about what they would do to bring about the full recovery of our infrastructure, which is in deplorable shape.”

Katrina bypassed

On the stump, Mr. Obama tells voters the next election will signal an end to the era of “Brownie incompetence,” referring to the nickname Michael Brown earned from Mr. Bush as chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during Katrina. Mrs. Clinton says she would appoint “qualified” people, ridiculingthat Mr. Brown’s only qualification before taking the post was leading the Arabian Horse Association.

Both Democrats have worked in Congress to help recovery efforts, and each has a plan for the Gulf Coast, but it has not topped either’s political agenda.

The Gulf Coast is not one of the 13 “issues” detailed on Mrs. Clinton’s Web site. Visitors to the Obama home page must bypass the 20 issues listed and go to “additional issues” to find his “Katrina” plan.

Mrs. Clinton recently told the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a group of black community papers, she was “embarrassed” by the Katrina response, which she called a “national disgrace.”

In New Orleans last month before the state’s primary election, Mr. Obama lamented the Crescent City has become “a symbol for what we could not do. The words ‘never again’ — spoken so often in those weeks after Katrina — must not fade to a whisper,” he said.

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina began and ended his presidential bid here. He brought 700 college volunteers to the region in 2006, an event he spoke about while campaigning. After dropping out of the race in January, he rebuilt a Ninth Ward home and promised to remember the Gulf Coast, saying it was a “moral responsibility and, “we must do better.”

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