President Obama's visit to New Orleans Thursday was 47 days late and a few hundred million dollars short. His presence was expected on Aug. 29, 2009, the fourth anniversary of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravishing the Gulf Coast with wind and floods. The post-Katrina recovery has had a number of false starts, hiccups and clog-ups. The people of New Orleans and the greater Gulf Coast needed only to see and hear from their president that real change was coming and their lives would soon be improving.
But until Thursday, they've not seen him, except on television. It is true that President Obama has sent Cabinet members on multiple trips to New Orleans—"more Cabinet members to this region than anywhere else in the country," he said. Cabinet members, as influential as are, have limited power, though. As the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency president Milton Bailey told The Root after sitting front-row for Obama's town hall speech, "I hear him saying he's making movements, but I don't see that movement manifesting in a real way on the ground." His town hall speech at the University of New Orleans was disappointing. He spoke vaguely about broad issues, before quickly being whisked off to a fundraiser in San Francisco. It was as if he was speed-dating, and New Orleans got swiftly "next'd."
Here are six concrete actions Obama could have either acted upon or spoken into power that would help bring relief to New Orleans' communities in an immediate and meaningful way:
1. Push for urgent resolution of the Charity Hospital deadlock.
Charity Hospital served the poor and uninsured of New Orleans for hundreds of years, but was closed after damage from Katrina floods. Louisiana State University and state elected officials have used this as an opportunity to pursue plans for a new medical facility that will cost billions, and will decimate 25 city blocks of residencies and businesses—much of that for parking lot space. The original Charity Hospital building can be rehabbed and retrofitted for a new state-of-the-art facility, and for a lot less money. But while state officials fight over whether to rebuild the old, or start from scratch, an endorsement from Obama one way or the other would have gone a long way, along with a commitment of federal funds to bridge any financing gaps needed to bring the Charity system back.
2. Tell Treasury to include Gulf Opportunity Zone Tax Credits in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes a cash exchange program for low-income housing tax credits issued to developers. Some housing construction plans were halted during the financial crisis when developers couldn't find investors to buy tax credits, which were declining in value. The ARRA exchange alleviated that problem. But Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner decided earlier this year that he would make all low-income housing tax credits eligible for this provision except for Gulf Opportunity Zone tax credits. This means that thousands of units planned for low-income families will have to wait. Obama could at the very least have stated that he'd urge Geithner to reconsider his decision, or, at best, announce a reversal.
3. Declare that any community development block grant funds already purposed for housing cannot be re-purposed, especially if housing needs have not been met.
Right now, there are millions in Louisiana community development block grants that are dedicated to creating multi-family rentals. But they're bottlenecked at the state level because Louisiana Treasurer John Kennedy and State Bond Commissioner Jim Tucker would like to see those funds re-purposed to other projects (like infrastructure). But there are thousands of families throughout the state still waiting to get into a home. A similar situation played out in Mississippi when Gov. Haley Barbour redirected HUD CDBG funds away from housing and toward port expansion. Obama could've made an emphatic pronouncement that no federal housing funds can be redirected to other projects, at least not until the housing need has been met.
4. Demand a working maximum levee protection and wetland restoration plan.
The standoff between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and basically every other government agency invested in the Lousiana Gulf Coast, is leaving many New Orleans communities vulnerable to potential disasters. The Corps is being obstinate about sticking to a plan that would provide only sub-optimal flood protection while other options that would bring more security against floods aren't even being considered. U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter want the Corps to better study the issue. Other options may cost more, but former President George Bush's "whatever it takes" declaration is applicable here—this region cannot afford another flood. There's no definitive plan for how to preserve what's left of the wetlands, nor is there one to better restore the coast. Obama barely mentioned anything on levee or wetland protection. A demand from him that the Corps of Engineers provide the best security at whatever cost would have been effective.
5. Endorse the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act.
Obama has stated over and again that the White House is committed to green jobs policies that will bring employment to families while helping to increase energy efficiency and stave off the worst climate change consequences. One of the best ways he can honor that commitment is by pushing for the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act (H.R. 2269), a bill introduced November 2007, before “green jobs" became a sexy slogan. This act would put thousands of people in the Gulf Coast region to work rebuilding homes and communities, and helping along coastal and wetland restoration. Literally hundreds of nonprofits and elected officials have been pushing for this bill, but somehow it keeps getting overlooked. The bill needs more sponsors, and those in the Department of Labor and the White House Council on Environmental Quality who are handling green jobs policy need to pay more attention. A mere mention of the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act in his NOLA speech would have gone a long way.
6. Create a fund for the families exposed to formaldehyde from the FEMA-issued trailers.
Last month, in the first lawsuit against companies that created toxic mobile home units for families displaced by the hurricanes, it was decided that the companies that manufacured and installed the trailers were not liable for health problems suffered by a family that was exposed to noxious formaldehyde levels. FEMA was left out as a defendant in that suit even though they issued the contracts to the manufacturer and installer. This is unacceptable for the many children and seniors who are having breathing complications, skin rashes and other health disorders due to living in conditions where formaldehyde levels were, in many trailers, dozens of times higher than federal safety thresholds. FEMA may end up a party in future lawsuits, but as for now, courts have determined that the statue of limitations for suing them has run out. This should be unacceptable to Obama. If nothing else, if FEMA can't be brought to justice for their part in exposing families to toxic fumes, he should set up a fund to cover the health care costs of those who already (and those who surely will) become sick from inhalation of formaldehyde fumes. He could also push to have health care reform proposals amended to include a special provision for victims of FEMA-trailer toxic contamination.
Brentin Mock is a 2009 USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism Fellow.