Anniversary of Katrina spurs officials to visit New Orleans

La. senator says 1-year mark offers chance to show what work remains

July 22, 2006|By JEFF ZELENY | JEFF ZELENY,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW ORLEANS -- A fleeting group of well-dressed painters and builders have been passing through the neighborhood here on North Roman Street lately, stopping by just long enough to pound a few nails or apply a few strokes of bright-colored paint on the side of a newly constructed home.

These temporary crews are not fly-by-night laborers. They are politicians, making increasingly steady pilgrimages as the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches.

With a brush in one hand and a bucket of blue paint in the other, Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, climbed a ladder yesterday to join the list of those who have rendered a little political sweat, New Orleans-style. He came to the same block where President Bush swung a hammer only months ago and a group of Southern governors took their turn last week.

Not far from the fast-rising homes in a neglected block of the Upper Ninth Ward, Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry delivered a speech yesterday. And House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, was across the state leading a seven-member congressional delegation in Lake Charles, La., surveying progress made in the 11 months since storms devoured the Gulf Coast.

As politicians flock to New Orleans, they are practically tripping over one another these days.

When a plane from Washington arrived yesterday morning, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, took Kerry and Obama by the hand and introduced them to a waiting quartet of volunteers - they call themselves "Women of the Storm" - who began telling the senators about the needs of the city.

"Last week, I had Lamar Alexander and Richard Burr down for a visit," she said, referring to the Republican senators from Tennessee and North Carolina, respectively.

The one-year point, Landrieu said, offers a prime moment to take stock of what has been done and what remains to be done. (The latter list, she said, stretches far longer.) Her goal is to show - not tell - the story of New Orleans to every senator and as many members of Congress and governors who will take the time.

"It's a time to measure what have we done," said Kerry, who was making his third visit to the city since Katrina struck. "It's a shame that it's going to take a one-year anniversary for everybody to refocus. I think people will be shocked by how little has happened."

Yesterday, Obama became the 55th senator to tour New Orleans, according to a tally maintained by Landrieu's office. He visited shelters in Houston with former presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton after the storm but had not toured Louisiana, even though he has been a vocal critic of wasteful government spending on recovery and reconstruction.

"There was no magic reason why now instead of earlier," said Obama, who initially avoided traveling to New Orleans last year to avoid appearing too political. "We didn't want to come down here unless there was something concrete and productive to do."

But as the hurricane is commemorated and debated anew from here to Washington in the next month, it's impossible to remove politics from the discussion. Democrats fighting to win control of the House and Senate see a political opportunity in reminding Americans about what they believe were grave failings of the Bush administration.

At the same time, Republicans say they have no intention of shrinking away from the anniversary. The president is almost sure to return to the city at least once, aides said, as well as an untold number of Cabinet officials and members of Congress.

For visitors from both parties, Capt. Michael Benoit of the Louisiana National Guard is a tour guide in high demand.

In recent weeks, he has led Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed through a hauntingly empty Lower Ninth Ward. He has showed Hastert and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, the Lakeview neighborhood, where sprawling homes remain shuttered.

The views from the windows of his white van have changed little over the months.

"One unique thing about this city is that cemeteries are raised," said Benoit, speaking in a casual monotone as a government van steered through the historic Gentilly neighborhood. "You can't bury anyone around here. They will float up."

His latest passenger came yesterday: Obama. The 44-year-old senator was making not only his first visit since the hurricane struck, but it was his first time in New Orleans.

"I never had occasion to be here," he explained. "It was one of those things I had always wanted to do. This is not how I envisioned my first visit would be."

Jeff Zeleny writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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