NEW ORLEANS — President Obama spoke to the criticism of the federal response following Hurricane Katrina Sunday, vowing that his administration would “put an end to the turf wars between agencies, to cut the red tape and the bureaucracy” that he said had been obstacles to the region’s continued recovery.
“I wanted to come here and tell the people of this city directly: My administration is going to stand with you, and fight alongside you, until the job is done,” Mr. Obama said.
The president spoke on the fifth anniversary of the day the hurricane touched ground in the Gulf Coast, to a crowd at Xavier University, where he gave a commencement address in the spring immediately following the disaster. The receptive audience included students, members of the community and state and city leaders, including recently elected New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, his sister US Sen. Mary Landrieu (D), US Sen. David Vitter (R) and Governor Bobby Jindal (R).
Obama’s speech touched upon many familiar and problematic subjects to people here, including the loss of jobs, insufficient housing, health care, crime, and education. He outlined recent federal efforts to deliver those services in a more tangible way, including $1.8 billion in federal grant money awarded Friday by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to refurbish public schools hit by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Obama mentioned “restoring competence and accountability” in FEMA, the tarnished agency criticized for its slow and insufficient response in the days and months following Katrina. He touted the resume of current FEMA director Craig Fugate, noting his “25 years of experience in disaster management in Florida, a state that has known its share of hurricanes.”
Before accepting his current position in Washington, Mr. Fugate served as director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. Michael Brown, FEMA director during Katrina, was criticized for his lack of emergency management experience before joining the Bush administration in 2001.
The president said he was forming a task force, led by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, to address disaster recovery procedures nationwide.
“We’re improving coordination on the ground, modernizing emergency communications and … putting in place reforms so that never again in America is someone left behind in a disaster because they’re living with a disability or they’re elderly or infirm,” he said.
Obama also addressed the recent Gulf Coast oil spill, noting his administration’s actions in its immediate wake and in the months following. He did not mention the federal six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling, but said his administration “will continue to rely on sound science – carefully monitoring waters and coastlines as well as the health of people along the Gulf – to deal with any long-term effects of the oil spill.”
In a nod to another regional industry hit by the oil spill, Obama mentioned his seafood lunch at Parkway Bakery in the city’s Mid-City neighborhood where the president and first lady Michele Obama ordered shrimp po-boy sandwiches. (“I stopped before having the bread pudding because I thought I might fall asleep,” he explained.)
In speaking to reporters following the president’s speech, Gov. Jindal said he thanked the president for mentioning seafood in his speech but said he hoped to hear a more explicit discussion of the effect the federal moratorium is having on the state economy.
“The experts all agree we could end this moratorium before six months,” Jindal said. “Let’s put our people back to work … I didn’t personally object to a pause [in drilling] but I object to a one-size-fits-all moratorium.”
The governor said he briefly talked with Obama before the speech to press for more action in getting BP to increase funding of state and federal efforts to restore the state’s coast.
“We don’t need more studies, we don’t need more delays,” Jindal said.