When President Barack Obama gave his inaugural address last week, he reminded Americans it was a time of "gathering clouds and raging storms." Every citizen knew what he meant: two wars, a failing economy, skyrocketing health care costs, 43 million Americans without health insurance and a crumbling infrastructure. For New Orleanians, however, his words resonated even more. We have been weathering a raging storm for more than three years.
New Orleans has suffered not only from the effects of Gulf storms and failed federal levees, but also from political storms and failed administrations — both national and local — where responsibility has been scarce coin. In his post-Katrina speech in Jackson Square, former President George W. Bush promised, "We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives." That didn't happen. The speech was intended more to repair a president's devastated reputation than a devastated city. By 2007, less than 18 months later, New Orleans and Katrina weren't even mentioned in Bush's State of the Union Address.
President Obama's inaugural address Tuesday also did not mention Katrina, but his passing reference to Americans' duty "to take in a stranger when the levees break" was a siren call clearly aimed at the Gulf Coast in general and New Orleans in particular to let us know we had not been forgotten. By the time the new president finished his inaugural address, the official White House Web site had already been updated with the Obama agenda for Katrina relief. In unusually blunt terms (which, predictably, infuriated conservatives), it began: "President Obama will keep the broken promises made by President Bush to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast."
How Obama proposes to translate talk into action remains to be seen, but there are two obvious places to start: Category 5 levee protection and a fully funded coastal restoration plan. The administration does not promise that, but in his campaign Obama did promise "a levee and pumping system to protect the city against a 100-year storm by 2011." We'll hold him to that.
Category 5 protection is an ambitious agenda, but Obama is nothing if not ambitious. In his first 36 hours as president, he ordered a freeze on all new or pending Bush-era regulations, announced a salary freeze on all White House employees making more than $100,000 per year, and sought another freeze on prosecutions ongoing at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp. He also signed two directives and three executive orders designed to tighten ethics rules for administration officials — particularly former and future lobbyists — and held senior policy meetings on Iraq, Afghanistan and the economy.
That kind of action gives Louisianans hope for swift action on other campaign promises: the immediate closure of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has promised to complete by June 1), the appointment of a FEMA director who will serve a single six-year term and report directly to the president, and the establishment of a "Cops for Katrina" program to help rebuild damaged law-enforcement agencies. We see no reason why the first two can't be accomplished by the beginning of hurricane season, if not sooner.
"What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility," Obama said last Tuesday, "a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world." New Orleanians who heeded the call to come back, rebuild and work to improve their communities have fulfilled that duty for more than three years. Under Obama's administration, we hope the federal government likewise embraces that sense of responsibility — not with billions of dollars of hastily spent, loosely tracked FEMA money and contractor boondoggles, but with properly constructed levees, sensible jobs programs and a solid plan for wetlands restoration.
Obama's inaugural speech was a fine one, but rhetoric must be backed by action. It was hard not to be moved when he evoked the words of George Washington: "With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come." We cannot prevent storms, but we can prepare for them. And when it comes to Louisiana's needs, Obama has the chance to be the man his predecessor never was: a president whose actions match his words.