When President-elect Barack Obama began his campaign for the White House 22 months ago, he asked Americans to believe in the audacity of hope. He asked us this despite the economic uncertainty (which only grew worse), two wars and a Capitol rife with a partisanship that creates many more problems than it solves. A tall order, indeed particularly for New Orleanians trying to recover from a horrific manmade disaster and a profound sense of betrayal by our national leaders.
And yet, we believe.
Obama began his journey on a cold February day in Springfield, Ill., on the grounds of the Old State Capitol with 15,000 supporters in attendance. By the time he gave his victory speech last Tuesday night, tens of millions of Americans had come to believe as well. President-elect Obama, you have given us hope.
Now what? What should New Orleanians expect from our new president, and what can members of the Louisiana congressional delegation do to make those expectations a reality? Obama campaigned little in New Orleans, and Hurricane Katrina was barely mentioned during the presidential debates. During a visit to the city earlier this year, he made a vow to the people of the Gulf region: "When I am president, I promise you I will commit myself every day to keeping up Washington's end of this trust. This will be a priority of my presidency. And I will make it clear to members of my administration that their responsibilities don't end in places like the Ninth Ward. They begin there."
We couldn't agree more. We quickly add that governmental responsibility is not a handout, but, in the case of New Orleans, it means using governmental resources to restore and improve lives that were damaged by government's failures. Over the next four years, the Obama Administration needs to make significant progress in this area. We offer the following suggestions:
The people of the Gulf region have to feel protected, and the only way to achieve this is by ensuring the completion of the 100-year-level flood protection system and then going beyond it to Category 5 protection. Make such protection a national priority, because our safety is a matter of national security. More specifically, instead of the current system of funding projects based on legislative clout, have the Corps of Engineers create a prioritized list and then start work (at full funding) before bridges fall and levees fail.
When there is a disaster, natural or otherwise, the federal response must be led by an expert, not by someone whose only qualification is political connections. Obama supports professionalizing and depoliticizing the appointment of FEMA's director. Future directors should have fixed terms of six years and report directly to the president.
In the future, federal disaster aid must flow smoothly and quickly. That means rewriting the Stafford Act. U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu has made this a priority, and as the returning chair of the Senate's subcommittee on disaster recovery, she is well positioned to make this revision happen before the next storm season. Obama and Landrieu also support a national catastrophic insurance program, which would spread the risk among insurance companies, reinsurance companies, states and the federal government in a public-private partnership.
Southeast Louisiana remains without a large public hospital for the uninsured and underinsured. State Health and Hospitals Secretary Alan Levine says federal monies for LSU's proposed $1.2 billion downtown hospital will likely not come before President George W. Bush leaves office. FEMA has stonewalled the state's attempt to get $492 million in compensation for flood damage to the shuttered Charity Hospital; now it will be up to Obama to break the impasse. This holdover problem also presents the new president with an opportunity to significantly improve health care in our area.
Crime was a problem before Hurricane Katrina, but the storm obliterated the region's criminal justice system in terms of infrastructure and personnel. Obama has proposed a "COPS for Katrina" program, which allows storm-affected communities to hire and retain officers and prosecutors while rebuilding infrastructure, an idea which we support.
While Democrats have increased their majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, Republican legislators should not get left out in the cold. Rather, local Republicans like Rep. Steve Scalise and U.S. Sen. David Vitter should view the results as an opportunity to show true statesmanship by working across party lines for the good of our state and Democrats should resist temptations to engage in political retribution now that they have a larger majority.
Finally, Congress should pass the 8/29 Investigation Act, which would create a bipartisan commission to review why the levees failed and recommend ways to prevent similar catastrophes in the future. Adoption of the act would also signal a genuine change in Washington's attitude toward New Orleans' recovery and that's the kind of change we could really believe in.