New Orleans — A day after an enthusiastic, almost-gushing crowd met President Barack Obama on his first visit to New Orleans since taking office, some in this still-suffering hurricane-struck city wondered when platitudes and political speech would give way to greater progress.
Among them was recent law school graduate Gabe Bordenave, 29, who criticized what he called nickel-and-diming by the Federal Emergency Management Agency over critical rebuilding projects, like a downtown hospital shuttered since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.
“I don’t want to hear how problems are being solved,” Bordenave said Friday. “I want to know why the problems are not solved.”
Obama vowed that Gulf Coast rebuilding would be a priority of his administration. After taking office in January, he dispatched top officials — including Cabinet secretaries — to figure out how to get federal recovery money to state and local governments more quickly.
By the time Obama was elected, progress was already being made in rebuilding levees, schools and homes, but it was often overshadowed by bureaucratic holdups and hard feelings among government officials about the response to Katrina and the slow pace of the massive recovery.
At a town hall meeting Thursday, Obama cited progress in areas like taking on corruption in the local housing authority and reducing the number of storm victims living in federally supplied trailers. His administration says it has made changes that have helped free up more than $1 billion in FEMA recovery money for the state and cleared dozens of long-standing funding disputes.
But that’s only a dent in the state’s lengthy backlog of complaints and projects, and rules limit the federal government’s obligation and how money can be spent.
In response to a question from Bordenave about the former Charity hospital, which once provided indigent care and was a main training hospital, Obama replied that he wished he “could just write a check” but “we’ve got to go through procedures.” The dispute over the hospital’s funding will be decided by a panel of judges in arbitration by early next year.
Obama did make one bold pledge: “And so, I promise you this: Whether it’s me coming down here or my Cabinet or other members of my administration, we will not forget about New Orleans. We are going to keep on working.”