New Orleans still waits for change from Obama

Today the city of New Orleans welcomes President Barack Obama.

Although some in the South are hostile to Obama and his agenda, the people of New Orleans are ready to see their president. While other Americans are brutally critical of the stimulus package, health care reform efforts, and even the president’s address to American school children, the people of New Orleans understand the absolute necessity of federal partnership, resources, and attention. New Orleanians are ready to walk with the president along streets in their neighborhood, to talk with him about the continuing crisis of hospitals and to invite him into their classrooms.

No city is more ready to see the Obama administration deliver on the electoral promise of change.

The promise to change New Orleans first came from President George W. Bush. Just weeks after Hurricane Katrina, President Bush stood in New Orleans’ Jackson Square and spoke of rebuilding. He said, “We will do what it takes.” He promised that, regardless of time and resources, he would commit the federal government to rebuilding a New Orleans that was stronger and better than it was before.

The people of New Orleans took a “do what it takes” attitude toward rebuilding. Citizens returned to storm damaged homes and began to renovate even when the Road Home Program did not make sufficient payments. Nonprofit organizations worked to offer youth programs and opportunities even when the government dollars were not available. Educators began to turn around student achievement scores even though little money for school reconstruction was available.

The people of New Orleans got to work but President Bush’s speech in Jackson Square proved to be little more than another fly-over.

So it was with open arms that New Orleans embraced candidate Obama. Early in the Democratic primary season Barack Obama stood in New Orleans and said, “This is an absolute commitment that I have. No matter what happens in this election. This [the rebuilding New Orleans] is a symbol of what kind of country we are. If we don’t get this right then it means we as a country have forgotten to look out for one another.”

Few communities entered the voting booth in November 2008 with greater anxiety over the federal status quo than New Orleans. Many voters believed that John McCain represented a continuation of the Bush era. Barack Obama seemed to understand that New Orleans was ground zero for American change. If we were going to set the nation in a new direction, this city that care forgot, could not be forgotten by the country.

America was hungry for change, but New Orleans was starving for it.

Voters in many parts of the country were unclear about precisely what change meant, but in New Orleans the vision was clear. Change meant true recovery. Candidate Obama declared on February 7, 2008 that the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was, “a moment when America’s government failed its citizens. Because when the people of New Orleans extended their hands for help, help was not there.” Candidate Obama made clear that change meant delivering on the broken promises of his predecessor.

Today, President Obama will visit New Orleans for the first time since his inauguration. He intends to get a report on the change that his White House has administered in New Orleans.

In truth, change is always difficult. When examined in hindsight change appears swift, decisive, unifying, and clear. But when we are living it, change is far more likely to be slow, deliberate, painful, and even divisive. Americans have discovered that change is difficult in the nation’s healthcare policy and its economic recovery. New Orleanians know just how hard change is in post-Katrina recovery.

However, despite the difficulties, signs of change do exist.

In nearly every category where the president has promised change, we’ve seen some progress. The Obama administration has released more than $1 billion in recovery funds with billions more to come. President Obama appointed qualified officials to oversee FEMA, HUD and Homeland Security Administration. Although this is the President’s first visit, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other top administration officials have repeatedly visited New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, bringing new initiatives and announcements with each visit. But there’s still a lot of work to be done before we pronounce the mission accomplished.

The Army Corps of Engineers has yet to complete the construction of 100-year levees sufficient to withstand a category 5 hurricane. Nearly 2000 families still live in temporary FEMA housing. Medical services are woefully lacking due to disagreements about the federal government’s financial obligation in funding the construction or repair of a public hospital in New Orleans. Little has been done to confront the coastal erosion that allowed the 2005 Hurricanes to easily find their way up the Gulf Coast.

More than nine months into the Obama presidency, New Orleans has seen more activity and more attention than during the last few years of the Bush administration. That is a welcomed change. But as one might expect, more than four years after Hurricane Katrina, Gulf Coast residents are frustrated with the pace of recovery. Residents want levees, housing and medical care now. The president’s administration has been working on each of these efforts but there is clearly a considerable amount of work to be done.

Today’s visit by President Obama’s is desperately needed, because it is a chance for him to reaffirm his commitment to change in our region. That change may be arduous, but the people of New Orleans have not given up on the city and her future.

On the second anniversary of Katrina, Barack Obama spoke from a New Orleans’ pulpit and said, “In 10 years and in 100 years let people come here and say this is where the renewal began. Let this place be where it is said that people came together to build that foundation. And the deep darkness was replace with the light of hope.”

The city is ready. Let the change begin.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell is Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. James Perry is Executive Director of Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center and a candidate for mayor of New Orleans.

Watch the Barbershop Buzz on Obama in New Orleans