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Anniversary, Election Puts Spotlight on New Orleans


President Bush and a host of politicians who want his job are descending on the Gulf Coast this week to mark the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Today, at a church in New Orleans, Democrat Barack Obama said the government has long neglected the city.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): America failed the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast long before that failure showed up on the television set. America failed you again during Katrina. We cannot and we must not fail for a third time.


ELLIOTT: Watching Senator Obama at the First Emanuel Baptist Church was Stephanie Grace, a political columnist with The New Orleans Times-Picayune, and she joins us now.

Stephanie, welcome to the program.

Ms. STEPHANIE GRACE (Political Columnist, The New Orleans Times-Picayune): Thanks.

ELLIOTT: Senator Obama, after he spoke at the church today, went on a tour of a local neighborhood there. Did he see the New Orleans that you've been living with these two years?

Ms. GRACE: He did. He saw an interesting neighborhood called Gentilly Woods, which is - before Katrina, it was a middle-class neighborhood, largely African-American, hardworking people. And what he saw today was a neighborhood that has some houses that have been rebuilt, some that looked pretty much abandoned, some that have been torn down and the weeds are chest high. Some still have broken windows and what we sometimes call the Katrina tattoo, which is the big spray-painted X that first responders put on the house when they searched it the first time two years ago.


There were a number of FEMA trailers that were still in front of houses and we here in New Orleans take that as a good sign because it means someone's working on that house. But he seemed really struck at the idea that people would have been living in these trailers for two years and how miserable that would be.

ELLIOTT: What did Senator Obama say he could do for these people?

Ms. GRACE: He offered a lot of the things that people here really do want - long-term protection from Category five hurricanes, coastal restoration, some efforts to help solve the insurance crisis that's really holding back a lot of rebuilding, incentives to bring doctors and teachers here, certainly to take FEMA out of the Department of Homeland Security and make it accountable directly to the president and kind of depoliticize it.

ELLIOTT: Stephanie, I read a poignant essay today by a native New Orleanian, who is now an Associated Press reporter there. His name is Brian Schwaner. He wrote: The only attention the city gets these days is as a campaign prop for presidential contenders. Do you think that's the way people feel?

Ms. GRACE: I got to tell you people have been really beaten down by the treatment they've gotten from government at all levels but specifically at the federal level. What you hear here often is that this happened because the federal levees broke. The city is surrounded by levees that were built by the Corps of Engineers and they crumbled when they shouldn't have crumbled, you know.

So on the one hand, you'd know that. And on the other hand, you keep getting the sense that the rest of the country blames you for it somehow. It's like telling the people in Minneapolis that, you know, they should have known better than to drive over that bridge. And so I think there is a lot of hurt there, too.

ELLIOTT: Stephanie, Louisiana politicians have certainly had their share of scandals since the storm.

Ms. GRACE: I'm running after, yes.

ELLIOTT: Yeah. Does that affect the city's efforts to focus national attention on its plight?

Ms. GRACE: I think it does. We've had some very unfortunate scandals since the storm. We've had a congressman indicted, Congressman Jefferson, who represents New Orleans. We've had a senator caught up in a sex scandal. We've had a mayor who has said things that have not always reflected well on the city. And the fact that we've had a history of corruption, kind of, a tolerance of it. You know, we kind of like our political rogues here and we find them entertaining and, you know, a big part of being an New Orleanian is not caring whether anybody else in the country thought of you. And now, people really have to care because you desperately need help from the outside.

ELLIOTT: Stephanie Grace is a political columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Thank you so much.

Ms. GRACE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.