On the cusp of the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Senator Barack Obama will present a plan on Sunday aimed at hastening the rebuilding of New Orleans and restructuring how the federal government responds to future catastrophes in America.
The Gulf Coast restoration, Mr. Obama said, has been weighed down by red tape that has kept billions of dollars from reaching Louisiana communities. As president, he said, he would streamline the bureaucracy, strengthen law enforcement to curb a rise in crime and immediately close the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet in order to restore wetlands to protect against storms.
Mr. Obama also said that he would seek to lessen the influence of politics in the Federal Emergency Management Agency by giving its director a fixed term, similar to the structure of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FEMA director would serve a six-year term, under Mr. Obama’s plan, and report directly to the president.
Mr. Obama, an Illinois Democrat, and several presidential hopefuls are scheduled to arrive in Louisiana this week to highlight how New Orleans has — and has not — recovered from Hurricane Katrina. Democrats have sought to use the city as an example of what they believe was among the Bush administration’s greatest domestic failures.
John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator who announced his presidential candidacy in the city’s devastated Lower Ninth Ward, is set to return to New Orleans on Monday and to appear with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York at a summit dedicated to rebuilding the Gulf Coast. For Democrats and Republicans alike, a plan for New Orleans is a new element of the 2008 campaign.
Mr. Obama, according to details provided by his campaign, said he would appoint a chief coordinating officer to “cut through bureaucratic obstacles” and a chief financial officer “to minimize waste and abuse.” Only about 40 percent of the money allocated by FEMA to rebuild schools, hospitals and other infrastructure has reached Louisiana communities, he said, which could be improved upon with better coordination.
“Let New Orleans be the place where we strengthen those bonds of trust, where a city rises up on a new foundation that can be broken by no storm,” Mr. Obama is planning to say Sunday, according to remarks provided by his aides. “Let New Orleans become the example of what America can do when we come together, not a symbol for what we couldn’t do.”
If elected, Mr. Obama said he would establish a Drug Enforcement Agency office in New Orleans that would be dedicated to stopping drug gangs across the region. He also would create a “COPS for Katrina” program, which would allow communities affected by the storm to hire more police officers and prosecutors to fight crime.
The city’s recovery has been crippled by a shortage of doctors and the closures of hospitals and medical centers. Mr. Obama said he would create a program to forgive medical school loans in exchange for doctors agreeing to practice in New Orleans.
In his plan, Mr. Obama will call for creating a National Catastrophe Insurance Reserve, which would be paid for by private insurers contributing a portion of the premiums they collect from policy holders. Working with the industry before a disaster, he said, would create a “backstop” to protect homeowners and business owners against catastrophic loss.
Mr. Obama will also propose overhauling the levee and pumping system in New Orleans by 2011 to protect the city against a 100-year storm. To restore wetlands, marshes and barrier islands to help protect the city from a future storm, he pledges to close the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, an old navigation channel that many scientists say destroyed wetlands and contributed to a funnel effect that increased damage from the storm.
Before Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, Mr. Obama had never been to New Orleans. After the storm, he visited evacuees in Houston (alongside Mrs. Clinton and former President Bill Clinton); his first trip to the city was last summer.
After outlining his plan during a morning speech at First Emanuel Baptist Church on Sunday, Mr. Obama is scheduled to take a walking tour of a city neighborhood. The procession of politicians, particularly Democrats, who are set to pass through New Orleans this week are eager to use the city as an example of why Americans need their government and the challenges facing the next president.