NEW ORLEANS – Democrat Barack Obama said Sunday the country cannot fail New Orleans again and that as president, he would keep the city in mind every day.
"The words never again cannot be another empty phrase," he said in front of one of the few rebuilt houses he saw on a brief tour of the city's Gentilly Woods section. "It cannot become another broken promise."
Obama is the first of several presidential candidates from both parties who are set to visit New Orleans in connection with the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Wednesday. President Bush also is expected to mark the occasion with a trip to the Gulf Coast.
Obama, whose day began at First Emanuel Baptist Church, said that long before Katrina, the nation had failed to lift up New Orleans, a city with persistent struggles such as poverty and poor public schools. He said that cannot happen again and that Americans have a "collective responsibility" to each other.
"Racial discord, poverty, the old divisions of black and white, rich and poor, it's time to leave that to yesterday," he said.
"In rebuilding, we've got an opportunity to do more than put up a foundation that for too long failed the people of New Orleans," he told congregants. Some snapped photos of him at the pulpit with their cell phones.
"In rebuilding, we've got an opportunity to build something better, a foundation that can put up with a lot, upon which the children of New Orleans can build their dreams."
Progress since Katrina has been slow, mired in bureaucracy and marred by fingerpointing among federal, state and local officials. Some small businesses are struggling, houses remain empty in vast sections of the city and people are frustrated.
From several residents, Obama heard about poor infrastructure and the slow pace of home rebuilding grants. He walked past empty lots overgrown with weeds rising above his head and saw Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers and signs advertising services such as mold remediation.
"I just feel like we've been forgotten about," resident JoAnn Fleming Bradley told him.
The Illinois senator criticized Bush for what he said was a lack of urgency in rebuilding the city. "I can promise you this: I will be a president who wakes up every morning and goes to bed every night with the future of this city on my mind," Obama said.
He outlined a plan he said would help restore the region by:
— Providing grants for community policing in New Orleans, which has struggled with violence since Katrina;
— Offering incentives such as loan forgiveness programs to try to attract doctors and college students;
— Ensuring displaced residents who want to return have a place to stay;
— Creating a national catastrophic insurance reserve, which he said would help homeowners struggling with their premiums.
"Part of the problem, I'll be honest with you, I just don't think there is a sense of urgency in the White House, where the president is cracking the whip, day in, day out, and saying, 'Why is it that we're not getting this done?"' Obama said.
"I mean, you think about the amount of attention that's been devoted to Iraq. 'All hands on deck.' I don't get that same sense that there's a focus on getting this work done," Obama said.