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Sen. Obama Visits New Orleans, Criticizes White House

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama toured hurricane-scarred New Orleans on Monday after criticizing the White House for the slow pace of recovery from storms that hit the Gulf Coast almost a year and a half ago.

"There is not a sense of urgency out of this White House and this administration," Obama said during a Senate committee hearing on the response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "If nothing else, I hope that this hearing helps restore that sense of urgency."

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The hearing by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and governmental Affairs was attended by Obama, D-Ill., committee chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

After hearing a few hours of testimony from federal, state and local officials the senators and staffers boarded a bus that carried them from the Louisiana Supreme Court building in the relatively unscathed French Quarter to Jackson Barracks, the badly flooded National Guard headquarters, and then to the largely uninhabited Lower 9th Ward.

"Welcome to the isle of New Orleans!! Forgotten by our own country," read a sign carried by one of several protesters on the street as the tour got underway.

At the hearing, Obama urged federal, state and local authorities to try to speed up the process of getting aid money into the hands of storm victims.

He also expressed support for proposals to waive a federal requirement that states provide matching money for federal aid, and for a change in funding formulas governing the allocation of aid to states.

Landrieu had complained that Louisiana, while it received as much as seven times more damage than Mississippi from Katrina, has had only twice as much money — $10.4 billion to Mississippi's $5.2 billion.

Bush's coordinator for the Gulf Coast recovery, Donald Powell, blamed the disparity on caps Congress set limiting the percentage of money a state can get arising from a disaster.

Obama was careful not to slight Mississippi, which suffered major damage from Katrina. "I don't think that Mississippi is unduly benefitting, in the sense that they've got a lot of work to do, too," Obama said.

The visit by Obama, who is expected to formally announce his candidacy for president next month, comes about a month after another 2008 presidential contender, John Edwards, kicked off his campaign in New Orleans.

Obama was critical of Bush for failing to mention the hurricane recovery effort in last week's State of the Union address to Congress.

Powell sought to assure the committee that Bush is determined to rebuild the region.

"President Bush is committed to rebuilding the Gulf Coast and rebuilding it stronger and better than it was before hurricanes Katrina and Rita," Donald Powell said Monday, but he added that it will take a "long time" to finish the job.

Earlier, a protester shouting "Stand up for Justice" interrupted Lieberman's opening remarks.

The man yelled, "Stand up for justice! We want somebody to stand up for justice!" before a law enforcement officer led him out of the hearing room at Louisiana's Supreme Court building.

"It's hard to come back here more than a year after Katrina... without feeling that emotion," Lieberman, D-Conn., said after the interruption of the hearing by the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which Lieberman chairs. "We're here to say that we understand the work is not done, to put it mildly."

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin testified that he doesn't see "the will to really fix New Orleans" in light of how much money the city is getting compared to the billions spent on the war in Iraq. And he repeated his long-standing complaint that federal money is taking too long to reach the city and its residents.

Nagin said the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as of Jan. 18 has agreed to pay for $334 million for infrastructure repairs in New Orleans, but the state only has forwarded $145 million to the city so far.

While Nagin has been critical of the state, state officials have said city leaders have failed to provide required documentation to receive the money. In turn, city officials have said the process through which money is distributed is cumbersome, a theme echoed in Nagin's remarks Monday.

"I strongly urge you to return responsibility and accountibility to the local government," he said.