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Obama impresses Gulf Coast officials

WASHINGTON — As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama pledged to right the wrongs that he said bogged down efforts to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Seven months into the job, he's earning high praise from some unlikely places.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., says Obama's team has brought a more practical and flexible approach. Many local officials offer similar reviews. Even Doug O'Dell, former President George W. Bush's recovery coordinator, says the Obama administration's "new vision" appears to be turning things around.

Not too long ago, Jindal said, Louisiana governors didn't have "very many positive things" to say about the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But Jindal said he had a lot of respect for the current FEMA chief, Craig Fugate, and his team. "There is a sense of momentum and a desire to get things done," the governor said.

Added O'Dell: "I think the results are self-evident."

The retired Marine general served what he calls a frustrating stint as Bush's recovery coordinator last year. "What people have said to me is that, for whatever reason, problems that were insurmountable under previous leadership are getting resolved quickly," O'Dell said.

The storm, which struck on Aug. 29, 2005, killed more than 1,600 people in Louisiana and Mississippi and caused more than $40 billion in property damage.

On the fourth anniversary of Katrina, many communities remain broken, littered with boarded-up houses and overgrown vacant lots. Hundreds of projects — including sewer lines, fire stations and a hospital — are entangled in bureaucracy.

Like Bush, Obama has critics who say he's not moving aggressively enough. Chris Kromm, director of the Institute for Southern Studies, an advocacy group, said the coast is "still waiting for Washington to show leadership."

In many areas, such as long-term coastal rehabilitation and rebuilding levees, it's too early to determine whether Obama will live up to the many promises he made.

But Victor Ukpolo, chancellor of Southern University at New Orleans, said the administration has been able to "move mountains" for his school, virtually wiped out by Katrina and the breached levees.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has visited the campus twice and awarded $32 million to replace four buildings.

Tommy Longo, mayor of Waveland, Miss., said it got so bad toward the end of Bush's tenure that "you almost couldn't get them to return a phone call, and you certainly weren't going to get them to make any big decisions."

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