Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Hell and High Water

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Hell and High Water

Article excerpt

A few days before the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this month, Barack Obama sat for an "exclusive" interview with a local newspaper in New Orleans. It contained some bland assurances that the city is now safe, and some anodyne declarations of the city's place in the president's priorities. But undercutting the pep talk were warning signs as ominous as the spinning cyclone symbol on a television weather map.

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The president used the phrase that grates on New Orleanians like no other: "natural disaster". This despite major reports by two pro bono teams of forensic engineers -the UC Berkeley-led Independent Levee Investigation Team and the Louisiana state government's team--which identified the scale of the catastrophe as resulting from poorly designed levees and flood walls. The ILIT report called it "the worst man-made engineering disaster since Chernobyl".

Asked whether he would reauthorise the position of Gulf Coast recovery "tsar", a co-ordinating post established by George W Bush and due to expire at the end of September, Obama sent a clear message that he wouldn't. Would he visit the city to commemorate the fourth anniversary? The president promised to come down "before the end of the year".

Four years on, New Orleans has survived largely due to its own resilience, with some help from late-arriving federal money to compensate homeowners (but not renters or landlords) for the Wholesale destruction. The most recent report from the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, delivers upbeat statistics: the city is weathering the recession far better than most urban areas. But the hole in the doughnut is the shortage of affordable rental housing for low-paid workers, which has not been addressed, so far, at any level of government.

A far-reaching programme of public education reform is making progress, but health care is still in intensive care. …

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