NEW ORLEANS - Like religious pilgrims performing the Stations of the Cross, the presidential candidates keep coming to New Orleans to visit the Lower 9th Ward, the Industrial Canal levee, the 17th Street Canal and all the other crippled landmarks of the unprecedented disaster that befell this city when Hurricane Katrina struck nearly two years ago.
Democratic candidate John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina, launched his presidential quest here last December. Republican hopeful and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani dropped in for a few hours last week. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., will be here on Friday.
Late Thursday night, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was scheduled to make a return visit to the city - his fourth since the hurricane - for a speech at the refurbished New Orleans Superdome, the scene of some of the most wretched suffering visited upon tens of thousands of New Orleans residents who waited for days to be rescued after four-fifths of the city was flooded.
Obama, one of the Democratic front-runners and the most viable African-American presidential candidate in history, was expected to receive a rapturous welcome from the mostly black audience when he takes to the stage at the opening of the three-day Essence Music Festival, somewhere between Ludacris and the Isley Brothers.
But palpable throughout the crowd, and across the rest of this city still slowly struggling back to its feet, was a growing sense of skepticism about the parade of presidential candidates from both parties who fly into New Orleans for a few carefully-scripted appearances and then quickly depart, leaving little behind.
“Everybody’s using us as a photo op to some degree,” said Reuben DeTiege, 48, an Obama supporter who, like so many others here, lost his house to the floodwaters. “But the litmus test will be when we see (Obama) and the other candidates come here and hear what they will actually do for the African-American community.”
By almost every measure, New Orleans remains hobbled by the Katrina disaster. The city’s population is estimated at 262,000, less than 60 percent of its pre-Katrina level. Crime, much of it drug-related, has exploded - the city recorded its 100th murder of the year last weekend, marking it, on a per-capita basis, as the deadliest city in the nation. Suicides and other mental health crises have skyrocketed.
Meanwhile, rebuilding has been sluggish, spotty and hampered by lengthy delays in distributing federal grants of up to $150,000 to help homeowners rebuild. Worse, the state-administered fund that’s supposed to pay those claims is forecast to run out of money soon.
And despite more than a year of feverish work by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to shore up the levees and protective floodwalls that failed to shield the city from the Category 3 hurricane, much of New Orleans remains exactly as vulnerable as it was on the day Katrina blew ashore on Aug. 29, 2005.
Better protection will not be completed until 2011, the Corps recently announced - and even then, neither Congress nor the Bush administration have agreed to spend the billions of dollars that would be necessary to armor the city against the strongest hurricanes.
All of which makes this place fertile ground - and a compelling backdrop - for Democratic presidential candidates eager to press their contention that the Bush administration failed New Orleans, and especially its African American residents, by its handling of the Katrina disaster.
Republican candidates as well have visited here to demonstrate their concern for the city.
“What I’d like to see,” Giuliani said last week after a quick visit to see repairs to the ruptured 17th Street Canal, “is a heck of a lot more urgency to it. The federal government should be taking responsibility for what they did, for what FEMA does. I felt that way as mayor of New York.”
Many New Orleans residents say they are giving all the visiting candidates respectful but wary greetings at this early stage in the presidential race, not wishing to hitch their fortunes to a particular aspirant who might not end up as the Democratic or Republican nominee.
“The community is hopeful that the focus on Katrina might actually be a part of the agenda of whoever is elected president,” said William Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University of New Orleans and a leading anti-poverty activist in the city. “On the other hand, New Orleans is a sympathy photo-op for every elected official and every nonprofit, so there is a sense that we need help but we don’t want to be taken advantage of.”
Nevertheless, Quigley added, Obama appears to enjoy an early advantage over the other candidates in this city which, before Katrina at least, was majority African-American.
“Obama came here before Katrina - he was an honored visitor to the community before we were the focus of the world’s sympathies,” Quigley said. “I think people feel a special connection with him.”