The Washington Times - March 9, 2009, 04:17PM




I’m back from my Gulf Coast trip — four days of interviewing administration officials, local leaders and the city’s people, many who just want to get back home.


We collected their stories and presented them in multiple ways — a front page story, videos and a photo gallery documenting the various stages of progress and disrepair in the Big Easy.


Here’s the story’s opener:


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.

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.”


Read the full story here and view Rod Lamkey’s amazing photo gallery here.


To compare the progress with how it looked last March, see my blog about that trip and story here.


While on the coast I scored an interview with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who addressed disaster preparedness:


GULFPORT, Miss. — Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said the nation’s disaster-response teams and federal agencies learned valuable lessons from mistakes made during Hurricane Katrina, adding that her department may use text messages and Twitter to help with preparedness.

Ms. Napolitano told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview Friday that disaster-readiness is a “never-ending process” because each one brings a unique set of challenges.

“Every forest fire I had in Arizona during my time as governor, I learned from,” Ms. Napolitano said a few minutes after a helicopter tour of the region alongside Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

Read the full story here.


She also said it was impossible to understand the scale of the damage along the coast unless you see it with your own eyes.

“You can read every book and manual in the world, but until you physically see it, it doesn’t hit you, the impact isn’t quite there,” she said.


I made a three-minute video summarizing the trip, my first edited project.

The story touches briefly on the many volunteers who have made their way South since Katrina hit three and a half years ago.


Jordan Sikkema, 26, left Chicago to help through his church.

“I came down because I could,” he said. “We say at the church we need people to pray, people to send and people to come. I was able to come.”


But his group, Laginiappe Presbyterian Church, will stop doing construction at the end of May in part because donations have dried up and a government grant they budgeted for didn’t come through.


“We can’t just fund homes out of our own pockets,” he said.


In addition to my video, Rod did several pieces on Robert Green’s Katrina story. Both his mother and 3-year-old granddaughter died that day.


Here are some of my shots from his trailer:



The videos of Green are three minutes each. Here are Part One, Part Two and Part Three, and one featuring Esther Johnson, a resident who told us she’s in a “hurry” to get back home.


“Leaders need to take a good look at this,” Jerry Askin, a junior at Georgia State University in Atlanta in town to help tutor New Orleans children, told me.


“I am impressed with what has been done but still saddened with the level of work that still needs to be done.”


Here are a few more photos of the lower 9th, and one of Hazel Minter, 87, mentioned in the close of my story, enjoying her rebuilt front porch.



 Christina Bellantoni, White House correspondent,
The Washington Times


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