I still remember when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans five years ago. I'd just attended the Essence Music Festival the year before, only to hear that the very same streets I'd visited were now flooded with water. It was also the week of my first confrontation with Sean Hannity on the air. Donald Rumsfeld had come on the show right before me, and Hannity and I were arguing about why it seemed that the government spent more time planning to shoot "looters" than actually saving the people in the flood. Rarely before Katrina had we witnessed such a gross dehumanization of our fellow American citizens.
President Obama sought to commemorate the anniversary of Katrina by speaking in New Orleans this weekend. He told the students at Xavier University that he plans to stand with the community when it comes to making sure they know the Federal Government is behind them in the on-going quest for full recovery.
"My administration is going to stand with you, and fight alongside you, until the job is done," Obama said.
In the terrible tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, the nation saw over 1,800 people die along the Gulf Coast. The damage of the hurricane was further compounded by the recent BP oil spill. Thousands of jobs have been lost, so the region has been dealt the double blow of both economic and personal trauma. The African American community was hit especially hard, as the slow federal response to Katrina caused those in the poorest neighborhoods to suffer the most.
One of the interesting things about President Obama's speech in New Orleans is that there are many residents hoping that the president will call an end to his moratorium on deep water drilling. The halt to drilling has cost the region thousands of jobs. However, there are millions of Americans in other parts of the country who don't want to see any drilling in the Gulf, creating a political dilemma for the president.
Obama mentioned quite a few moves his administration has made since Katrina, specifically, the creation of a stronger levee system to prevent another tragedy. He claims that the system was built "so that this city is protected against a 100-year storm. Because we should not be playing Russian roulette every hurricane season."
What's interesting is that the president used the speech as a chance to critique the prior administration's response to Katrina, calling it "a manmade catastrophe - a shameful breakdown in government that left countless men, women and children abandoned and alone."
The challenge for President Obama, however, is that his own administration's response to the BP oil spill wasn't perfectly effective either. When the crisis first began, many (including myself) thought that this oil spill might morph into Obama's Katrina. While this has not quite been the case, he has certainly suffered political damage due to officials appearing to be disorganized in their response. At this time, the president's approval ratings are lower than they've ever been, and the Democrats are set to take heavy losses in the mid-term elections.
My advice to Gulf Coast residents: The proof is in the potato salad. If the president says he's going to stand by you, then you'd be well-advised to wait for the evidence. At this point, additional federal aid is needed to support the Gulf Coast, and the aid provided thus far has been inadequate. Talk is always cheap, which is why politicians provide an endless supply of rhetoric. All the while, Obama is not George W. Bush, and he should be given ample opportunity to prove that he is different. Only time will tell.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and a Scholarship in Action Resident of the Institute for Black Public Policy. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.