Tough in Big Easy: Speech on Katrina date holds peril, opportunity for Obama

NEW ORLEANS — President Obama should use the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to inject new energy into the unfinished task of repairing New Orleans, according to officials from the region, but will also face pressure from Gulf state lawmakers to drop the drilling moratorium and speed up recovery from the BP oil spill.

Obama will deliver a speech here Sunday to mark five years to the day that Katrina made landfall, devastating the city and tarnishing the presidency of George W. Bush.

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Showcasing the progress in New Orleans under his administration could also help boost the president's sagging approval ratings and with it, the fortunes of his party in November. His speech, officials say, should offer a way to find balance between further oil exploration and protecting the region’s sensitive coastline.

“We’re also going to impress upon him how difficult this recovery is going to be,” Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) told The Hill. “We’re going to remind him about the importance of coastal restoration and accelerating revenue sharing.”

But Louisiana's congressional delegation — Democrats and Republicans — has a key focus of getting the president to lift the moratorium on offshore oil drilling his administration imposed in the wake of the BP spill.


“We’re also going to mention to him that this moratorium that is in place — this blanket moratorium is causing severe economic damage to small businesses as well as to the oil and gas companies, large and small, independent, as well,” she said. “So this is a lot of what he’s going to hear when he’s here.”

Obama is now saddled with helping the region recover from both disasters — a responsibility fraught with political risk.

As a presidential candidate, Obama gained traction by criticizing his predecessor for his response to the disaster and for failing to instill a sense of urgency in the recovery effort in the wake of the storm.

“There is not a sense of urgency in this administration to get this done,” Obama said of the recovery effort in January 2007. “You get a sense that will has been lacking in the last several months.”

But two years into his administration, New Orleans is still being rebuilt. The city’s population is now about 100,000 less than it was before the storm, according to some estimates. And hard-hit areas like the Lower Ninth Ward are still dotted with hundreds of vacant, decaying buildings. 

Obama is now grappling with a new disaster in the Gulf, this one entirely man-made. The BP oil spill, which resulted in one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, appeared to drain Obama, who was reduced to urging officials to “plug the damn hole.”

Conservatives, such as radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, have lambasted the president's handling of the spill, labeling it “Obama's Katrina.”

But some of Obama’s critics in Louisiana say that comparison of the two disasters is unfair.


“I think that they’re two totally different disasters,” said Rep. Stephen Scalise (R-La.), whose district straddles Lake Pontchartrain.

Some might weigh the political fallout from the disasters with the same scale, but their impacts on the region and the city of New Orleans are vastly different.

“I don’t think the president handled the BP disaster in a competent way, I don’t think it showed the sense of urgency that we needed very early on. But I don’t think it’s fair to make any comparisons,” Scalise said.


Hurricane Katrina, for instance, directly claimed more than 1,300 lives and prompted a mass exodus of residents, thousands of whom have yet to return. It destroyed or damaged an estimated 275,000 homes. A study by the Department of Commerce calculated economic damages at more than $100 billion.

Meanwhile, the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon that triggered the spill killed 11 workers, and the underwater well in the Gulf of Mexico released some 184 million gallons of oil over three months. The environmental damage is still being catalogued, but tourists have already made their judgment. The U.S. Travel Association estimated the spill could cost the four Gulf states nearly $23 billion dollars in lost tourism revenue during the next three years.

“There’s a long way go,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said about the region's recovery effort.

The lingering effects of the BP spill — and the investigation into what caused the disaster — has overshadowed the fifth-year anniversary of Katrina. 

But Landrieu said he isn't worried that the clean-up operation will take away from the effort to rebuild the city — it might actually help.

“Katrina and the BP oil spill are two sides to the same coin,” he said. “They’re both man-made disasters, they’re both threatening the ecosystem, they’re both threatening the cultures. It’s got to be another wake-up call for the country to respond in a holistic way to the catastrophic events that occur.

“It gives the country another opportunity to do it better this time,” he added.