Obama joins parade to see New Orleans
A fleeting group of well-dressed painters and builders have been passing through the neighborhood here on North Roman Street lately, stopping just long enough to pound a few nails or apply a few strokes of bright-colored paint on the side of a new 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 (D-Ill.) climbed a ladder Friday 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 away from the fast-rising homes in a neglected block of the Upper 9th Ward, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) delivered a speech Friday. And House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was across the state leading a seven-member congressional delegation in Lake Charles, surveying progress made in the 11 months since storms devoured the Gulf Coast.
As politicians flock to New Orleans, they are nearly tripping over one another.
When a plane from Washington arrived Friday morning, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) took Kerry and Obama by the hand and introduced them to a quartet of volunteers--they call themselves "Women of the Storm"--who began telling the senators about the city's needs.
"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. "I insist every time that people come down, no matter if it's for a hearing or a meeting, that they go with me to see it. They can't believe it."
The one-year point, Landrieu said, offers a prime moment to take stock of what is done and what remains to do. (The latter list, she said, is 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."
55th senator to visit
On Friday, 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 Congress members.
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 (R-Ariz.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) through a hauntingly empty Lower 9th Ward. He has showed Hastert and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) the Lakeview neighborhood, where sprawling homes remain shuttered.
The views from the windows of his white van have changed little over the months.
His latest passenger came Friday: Obama. Not only was the 44-year-old senator making 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. " This is not how I envisioned my first visit would be."
Time stands still
In large stretches of New Orleans, though, time has effectively stood still since Aug. 29, 2005, the day Katrina struck. Many fast food restaurants remain closed, and virtually all public schools have been empty of children for nearly a year.
As Obama looked out the window during a two-hour tour, the green street signs provided metaphors of their own. There were Piety and Desire, Destiny and Division.
And, finally, a street called Hope.
"I've never seen something that stretches so far in every direction," Obama said near the end of his journey through Jefferson and Orleans parishes. "You are awestruck. To see mile after mile of abandoned homes and businesses is remarkable."
While the parade of politicians spends only a short time here, an abbreviated version of the city's recovery--and its remaining challenges--can be divined by reading a collection of signs tacked onto wooden light posts across New Orleans.
"Saw Levee Break? Wanted: Photos/videos/witnesses"
"Last Minute House Gutting $1.00 Sq. Foot"
"He is risen and so are we!"
Not all visiting politicians, though, have the same itinerary.
As the sun began to fall Friday evening, Obama had changed into a white starched shirt and blue tie. His office, with the help of community organizations, invited about 800 people to the St. Peter Claver Church for an interfaith service of healing.
"Praise the Lord," said Rev. Oliver DuVerney. "Sen. Barack Obama is here to see our troubles."