President Barack Obama has refused to extend to victims of Hurricane Isaac in Louisiana the same relief he criticized former President George W. Bush for withholding from New Orleans residents in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The move has frustrated state and local politicians and contradicts his own campaign rhetoric about disaster relief from just one election cycle ago.
In a fiery 2007 speech at Hampton University unveiled last week exclusively by The Daily Caller, Obama excoriated the Bush administration for supposedly refusing to waive requirements of the Stafford Act, which requires disaster victims to repay the federal government for emergency assistance, after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.
“What’s happening down in New Orleans?” Obama shouted during the speech, which was recorded at the Virginia university in June of 2007. “Where’s your dollar? Where’s your Stafford Act Money? Makes no sense! It tells me, the people down in New Orleans, they don’t care about as much!” (RELATED: In heated ’07 speech, Obama lavishes praise on Wright, says feds ‘don’t care’ about New Orleans)
However, Bush authorized millions of dollars in aid to New Orleans in 2007 for rebuilding, with no strings attached. And less than two weeks before his Hampton University speech, Obama himself voted against a bill that would have waived Stafford Act requirements for Katrina victims.
At the time, the president justified his vote by stating that the bill failed to include a timeline for a military withdrawal from Iraq. Only 13 other senators joined him in rejecting that legislation.
The Stafford Act requires states and localities to add their own money to federal funds disbursed for rebuilding after disasters. The amount of required matching funds can vary up to 25 percent, under the law.
According to Louisiana Republican Rep. Steve Scalise, the president has responded to the August landfall of Hurricane Isaac, which devastated several parishes in Louisiana, by requiring local governments to provide the maximum allowable 25 percent matching funds to receive their federal aid, instead of the 10 percent match that served as the Bush administration’s guideline in the aftermath of Katrina.
Plaquemines Parish, which was particularly hard hit by Isaac and whose residents had to evacuate to escape the effects of storm surge, is one area whose Stafford Act requirements Obama has declined to waive.
In contrast with the largely black areas of New Orleans that Obama addressed in his 2007 Hampton University speech, U.S. Census Bureau data show that Plaquemines’ population is 71 percent white.
Scalise added that Vice President Joe Biden had promised Louisiana that the federal government would forgive the $705 million in community disaster loans provided by the federal government after Katrina.
Instead, the administration devised rules for loan forgiveness that only the mostly black Orleans parish — not surrounding parishes, which are predominately white — could meet.
“Biden said ‘all your loans will be forgiven,’” Scalise told The Daily Caller. “But school systems and sheriffs’ offices still have multi-million-dollar loans that were promised to be forgiven, but weren’t.”
“President Obama hasn’t practiced what he preached when hurricanes struck Louisiana since he became president,” Scalise added.
State leaders, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, agreed that the administration has hypocritically shirked its responsibility.
“It’s offensive that Barack Obama would even try to score political points using Hurricane Katrina,” Jindal told TheDC through a spokesman.
“St. John the Baptist Parish was inundated by Isaac’s storm surge. President Obama visited the parish, held a press conference there and toured the devastation,” Jindal added. “Yet, he is still relying on this parish, and all other impacted parishes, to pick up 25 percent of the cost and refuses to make any adjustment allowed under the Stafford Act.”
Jindal also said state and local governments would struggle to pay back the debt on their own.
“A core responsibility of the federal government is to protect the lives and property of its citizens when threatened,” he added. “The president’s refusal to grant a cost-share adjustment ignores that responsibility.”
The Bush administration, which took heat for its handling of Katrina, eventually released to Louisiana $450 million in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds, then allowed the state to use those same federal dollars for its 10 percent Stafford Act matching funds, even though the money came from the federal treasury.
Additionally, President Bush waived the matching-funds requirement entirely on five separate occasions for debris removal and emergency services.
According to the left-wing Media Matters for America, President Obama knew Bush had allowed federal CDBG funds to serve in lieu of actual local funds for Stafford Act purposes when he gave the Hampton University address.
In January 2007, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that then-Senator Obama “seemed unsatisfied” when Donald Powell, the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding, explained in Senate testimony that “the state could pay the match using federal money.”
The president still seemed unsatisfied describing the Stafford Act situation in front of his audience at Hampton University months later.
Taylor Beery, a native New Orleanian who still lives and works in the Crescent City and served as director of policy for the recovery effort, confirmed that the Bush administration took pains to ensure that Louisiana could handle the rebuilding process.
“We [the government] effectively gave them that money twice,” Beery told TheDC. “In two separate bills, the federal government first provided HUD [Department of Housing and urban Development] funds to cover the cost-share, and in the second bill then eliminated the cost-share altogether.”
Scalise, then a Louisiana state representative serving on the joint House-Senate budget committee, said the state’s role was simply to “provide local bookkeeping” for federal relief dollars in 2007, rather than to come up with the money without federal help.
TheDC has reached out multiple times and by multiple means both to the White House and to the Obama campaign for comment, but has received no reply.