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Obama taps N.O. for U.S. blueprint

- The Washington Times - Monday, March 9, 2009

NEW ORLEANS

President Obama's aggressive approach to Gulf Coast recovery has allowed him to put a liberal policy stamp on the region and apply campaign promises to the areas hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina - from green construction and environmental protection to invigorating urban centers and stressing volunteerism.

As the new administration rolls out more funding for New Orleans and shines a spotlight on bureaucratic backlogs delaying rebuilding, Gulf Coast residents note they are entering a new phase with different needs.

The piles of debris that college students on spring break could pitch in to clear are long gone, new bridges have been erected, and those who could afford to rebuild their homes have done so.

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But many neighborhoods - especially the flattened Lower 9th Ward, one of the city's poorest areas - remain empty. Former residents are tripped up by paperwork, stuck in housing limbo, or are waiting for the schools and grocery stores to return so their once vibrant communities can rise again.

The Washington Times logged hundreds of miles last week to survey post-Katrina recovery and interview politicians, nonprofit leaders and storm survivors hopeful that Mr. Obama's pledges will be followed with action.

"At least he's trying to keep his promise. He has to start somewhere and, to be perfectly honest in light of the bigger problems that he's facing, to at least do that is a sign that he has not forgotten about us," said Robert Green Sr., living in a trailer in the Lower 9th, a neighborhood that "was home before Katrina and it will be my home after Katrina."

Testing ground

Mr. Green this spring will move into a modern "Make It Right" sustainable home, a project created by actor Brad Pitt. He said he'd learned about geothermal and solar panels and wants the Lower 9th to re-emerge with an emphasis on a sustainable future.

"Especially with the changing of the guard, we know that's going to happen within our lifetime, and we'll do something that's going to make a difference," he said. "We'll have a community that will be something that Al Gore will want to tour."

Mr. Green's trailer is one of the first things tourists and volunteers encounter when coming into the Lower 9th. Prominently on display is a memorial stone for his mother and 3-year-old granddaughter Shanai, killed as his family of seven clung to their rooftop during the August 2005 hurricane.

Last week, he recounted his tale to Department of Energy employees sent to the city in advance of a visit by two of Mr. Obama's Cabinet secretaries. The workers wiped away tears and Mr. Green comforted them with hugs and said he would keep fighting for families who want to come home: "Don't worry. I am New Orleans."

Vincent Anderson, who came to the region for the construction work, applauded Mr. Obama's focus on the coast and said it was "high time" he start rebuilding the United States and pulling out of Iraq. So far, Mr. Obama's policy toward the region has mirrored his plan for the nation - an emphasis on green jobs, pulling people from poverty, and housing help.

"Those things just feel like huge gestures," said Kalima Rose, senior director of the Louisiana recovery effort for PolicyLink.

"What we've learned here in Katrina is going to be important in what the president is going to implement in other cities now - job initiatives and addressing the housing crisis - stuff that was pretty much dismantled over the last administration," she said. "The fact alone they admit homelessness is a really big problem is a huge change."

Ms. Rose, whose advocacy group advised the Obama transition team on urban policy, said she has seen the president lay down a liberal blueprint when talking about Gulf Coast recovery - from housing assistance and infrastructure projects to more funding for unemployment insurance included in his economic stimulus plan.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin told The Times that Mr. Obama could not have delivered a stronger message than sending Cabinet members on a multiday regional tour during the first 50 days of his term, which he did last week: "That sent a signal to me they are serious."

"The citizens appreciated it," he said.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, who toured the region along with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, said the administration has a cross-agency approach to rebuilding, and that his department is coordinating with Energy to push more projects like "Make It Right." He said one family in those ecological homes pays a $3 monthly utility bill.

He said it's about more than the environment - and will help save money and create jobs.

"Not every home is going to be a zero-emissions home, not every home is going to have solar panels, but there is lots that we can do even with $10,000 or $15,000 per home and those things can start to pay for themselves," he said.

A promise kept?

After one month in office, Mr. Obama extended a federal post coordinating rebuilding efforts that was due to expire.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, told The Times he was "cautiously optimistic" that Mr. Obama will remain committed to the Gulf.

The pledge to help did not begin with his presidency. As a senator, Mr. Obama worked on Katrina issues and campaigned during Louisiana's Democratic primary with a similar promise.

"I will make it clear to members of my administration that their responsibilities don't end in places like the 9th Ward - they begin there," he said 13 months ago before winning the primary.

But some were left disappointed that Ms. Napolitano and Mr. Donovan's tour Thursday focused more on recovery than depicting the devastation that remains the hardest hit parts of New Orleans. Their caravan didn't tour the Lower 9th and instead stopped for a few minutes on the Claiborne Avenue Bridge over the Industrial Canal overlooking what was once the neighborhood.

Some residents who spotted the line of cars and buses were frustrated and said that was business as usual.

"They need to go in the neighborhoods and see that they are really not developed," said Frazier Tompkins, a 59-year-old truck driver. "They always show the French Quarter is up, Mardi Gras is going. But people in the neighborhoods really need to get in their houses."

Asked about the avoidance of the Lower 9th, Ms. Napolitano noted it "bore the brunt of the damage" and faces "a lot of recovery issues."

"We want to move that recovery along," she told The Times in an interview Friday. "We've got a fresh team and a fresh set of eyes from Washington, D.C., at my level and a real commitment from President Obama to see that this gets done."

Mr. Nagin dismissed complaints about the tour's route.

"She's aware of it, we talked about it," he said. "She was moved. My focus is not just the Lower 9th but that we need a more comprehensive approach to the whole city."

Mr. Green, who watched as the caravan stopped, did not begrudge the secretaries for holding events in other parts of the city but called it an "honorable mention" since Mr. Pitt was on Capitol Hill that same day touting his project.

"Had they gone up the street they would have seen firsthand how many families are still not back, how many houses are gone and how many houses are untouched by repair," he said.

Cecile Tebo, crisis unit administrator for New Orleans Police Department, said, "It's easy for people to hear 'blah, blah, blah' sometimes" during national television reports on Katrina, but that Mr. Obama's actions are a reminder.

"When he sent people here, it reactivated that attention and awareness," she said.


Renewed spirit

Jordan Sikkema left Chicago to help rebuilding efforts along the Mississippi coast three years ago, and is now the construction coordinator for Lagniappe Presbyterian Church's recovery program.

He said the work has shifted from projects college students could easily do - such as gutting flooded homes - to more specialized construction.

Lagniappe will stop doing construction and shift its focus to community rebuilding - the church aims to start an after-school program at Bay High School.

While the work - and donations - have dried up, the volunteers haven't stopped coming.

"A lot of organizations are having to scrounge to keep everybody busy," said Mr. Sikkema, 26. "There is a renewed sense of volunteerism, this fresh excitement as people realize President Obama will keep funding programs like AmeriCorps."

Mr. Donovan said Mr. Obama has reinforced volunteerism, saying the administration must "capture the spirit" of people "helping to change America."

Some volunteers are shocked when they see progress in the rest of the city but realize how little has changed in parts of New Orleans.

While it's less than a 10-minute drive from Bourbon Street, where the bars remain open and pop hits blare at all hours of the day, most of the Lower 9th Ward remains in tatters.

There's been an evolution in the sights, sounds and smells, but hundreds of flooded homes still sit, their walls collapsed. Broken front doors invite a view of rotted furniture inside. The silence that permeated the Lower 9th for more than a year as pieces of homes and smashed cars lay in the streets has been replaced by the sounds of hammers and buzz saws, but there remains an eerie emptiness some residents said they weren't sure would ever go away.

"If you can understand we had 10,000 houses, 10,000 families, and now we have something like 20," Mr. Green said. "That's still crowded to us, because at one time there was nobody here."

The spray paint - marking TFW for toxic floodwater, or in some cases, grim warnings such as "2 dogs under house" or "possible dead body" - has faded off many homes.

Placards across the city advertise plumbing, painting, tree cutting, and even "we cut tall grass," a service badly needed in the overgrowth of the Lower 9th, where wild dogs roam and snakes have been spotted.

The lingering emotional effects are still being categorized, as schoolchildren have trouble with tests and seniors remain haunted from losing their homes and, later, falling victim to the looting of family heirlooms and even valuable copper pipe that could have been salvaged.

"The water did rise and it just messed your mind up. I looked around at my home and didn't want to believe it was my own place," Hazel Minter, 87, said from the front porch that her son Claude Minter has rebuilt.

He recounted going to school in the Upper 9th as a boy and said it was always going to be home.

"Everyone tries to rush progress, but it has to grow like a garden," he said. "If you plant tomatoes, you can't go out the next day and expect to make a salad."