President Barack Obama will use the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to reaffirm his commitment to the Gulf Coast amid lingering questions over his administration's response to the BP oil spill.
Obama ends his Martha's Vineyard vacation Sunday and heads to New Orleans, five years to the day from when Hurricane Katrina raged ashore, busting through crumbling levees and flooding 80 percent of the city, killing more than 1,600 people. Then-President George W. Bush's was harshly criticized in many quarters for not responding aggressively enough to the disaster.
The unfinished business of helping make New Orleans whole is Obama's responsibility now. On Sunday, he will have the delicate task of commemorating the ravaging storm while reassuring residents who may still believe the government has failed them -- both when it comes to Katrina and to the BP spill.
"He inherited a legacy problem with New Orleans rebuilding just like so many incredible challenges with the economy," said Beth Galante, director of the New Orleans office of Global Green USA, a sustainable building initiative active in the city since the hurricane struck. "It does really put the burden on him to acknowledge the failures and make sure there's a serious and ongoing federal commitment to righting those problems."
Obama will speak at Xavier University, a historically black, Catholic university that was badly flooded by the storm. Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said Obama would commemorate the lives lost in the flooding, celebrate progress made in recovering, and "recommit the nation to the Gulf region and to all those still working to rebuild lives and communities."
Obama will also discuss the BP spill, which spewed more than 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf for three months, dealing a fresh blow to New Orleans' tourism- and oil industry-dependent economy. The blown-out well was finally capped in mid-July.
The one-day visit comes at a sensitive time for the president, as he tries to set a fall agenda heading into crucial midterm elections. He's also preparing for an Oval Office address Tuesday on ending combat missions in Iraq that presents a challenge similar to the one awaiting him in New Orleans. He'll be paying homage to the troops for an action started by Bush that he has now taken over, amid public concerns he is botching the follow-on action in Afghanistan.
New Orleans residents are welcoming Obama's decision to highlight the Katrina anniversary with a presidential visit. But many are also angry over jobs lost from the deep water oil drilling moratorium he ordered in the wake of the oil spill, and looking for more federal action to save precious wetlands that were eroding fast even before BP's well blew. They will be listening for specifics.
"What the city of New Orleans doesn't need is a booster talk," said historian Douglas Brinkley, who lived there during Katrina. "We had George W. Bush come to Jackson Square and make all these promises that are unfulfilled. So I think it'd go far if he would fill in what is the plan."
Burton said Obama was not expected to announce an early end to the drilling moratorium in Sunday's speech, or make any new policy announcements.
It will be Obama's 10th trip to the Gulf since taking office. Six of those visits came after BP's leased oil rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and starting the oil leak that was finally stopped last month.
His administration's response to the spill was at times faulted as too slow, prone to unrealistically rosy predictions and overly deferential to BP. But it rarely drew the level of criticism aimed at the Bush administration after Hurricane Katrina. Bush seemed at times unaware of events as poorly built federal levees broke in New Orleans, nearly wiping out coastal parishes and stranding residents on rooftops.
Five years later, New Orleans' progress is mixed. Add in the recession to Katrina and the Gulf spill, and the city suffered a triple whammy. But a report by the Brookings Institution and the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center says the metro area recovered more than 90 percent of its population and almost 85 percent of its jobs.
The Obama administration points to accomplishments, including freeing up more than $2.25 billion in FEMA public assistance dollars for Louisiana, repairing more than 220 miles of levees and floodwalls and providing $250 million for repairs at schools.
Residents say there's much more to be done. Some believe the repairs under way on the levees are inadequate and that the Obama administration needs a better plan for restoring the coastal wetlands that are supposed to be New Orleans' first line of defense but are disappearing at a rate of 34 square miles a year. Then there's the task of dealing with the oil spill moving through the waters of the gulf, complicated by differing projections of how much of it is still there and what the long-term impacts will be.
"I want him to be informed. So many people are misinformed," said Michael Homan, an associate professor of theology at Xavier. "And also with just a little bit of knowledge about what's going on with the wetlands, especially in light of the most recent BP situation. I would hope he would acknowledge just how important it is."
Associated Press writer Glen Johnson contributed to this report from Vineyard Haven, Mass.