The Lens has partnered with PolitiFact for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to see if President Barack Obama has followed through on his campaign promises about the storm and the city of New Orleans. 

Pledge: Rebuild schools in New Orleans

Will help communities in the Gulf make necessary school infrastructure investments so all kids from all backgrounds have safe and supportive environments to learn.

Ruling: Promise Kept

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan infamously called Hurricane Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.”

The storm destroyed or damaged most of the city’s 120-something schools, displacing massive amounts of students and sending an already broken system into further disarray. Ten years later, we wanted to check in.

Did Obama follow through on his Katrina campaign promises?Rebuild hospitals in New Orleans: Promise KeptStrengthen the levees in New Orleans: CompromiseComing ThursdayImprove transportation in New Orleans: CompromiseHelp restore Gulf Coast wetlands: Promise KeptRestore housing in New Orleans: CompromiseEstablish special crime programs for the New Orleans area: Promise KeptDirect revenues from offshore oil and gas drilling to increased coastal hurricane protection: Promise broken

Obama’s promise specified infrastructure, so we’ll focus on federal efforts in rebuilding. The Obama-backed 2009 stimulus package allocated $1.4 billion in education funds for Louisiana and $1.1 billion for Mississippi. Since the storms hit in 2005, the two states have respectively received $3.37 billion and $334 million for education from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

New Orleans specifically was awarded a bulk $1.8 billion FEMA grant in 2010 to rebuild and repair about 80 schools. As of May 2015, 28 projects have wrapped up and 52 are underway, while eight have yet to begin.

The school district overseeing the recovery, however, emphasized in 2011 that FEMA dollars alone “will not fund renovation costs for the most stable buildings in the city right now.” But that’s not the feds’ fault, since the construction costs were 20 percent higher than estimated, according to a 2015 report by Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives.

Report co-author Vincent Rossmeier said he could not comment on whether the FEMA grant was sufficient, but added that “the facilities were already in terrible shape prior to the storm and that the settlement was agreed upon by all parties.” (Before Katrina, Louisiana’s education system ranked among the worst in the nation, and most of New Orleans schools were crumbling, underperforming, or both.)

Currently, enrollment has returned to 67 percent of pre-Katrina levels, with the vast majority of the students attending charter schools. The transformation into a nearly all-charter system has sparked intense debate — critics point to, for example, the performance divide between predominantly white and majority black schools. Overall, though, test scores, per pupil spending, and state rankings have all surpassed pre-Katrina levels.

The Obama administration has doled out billions of dollars in federal funding to rebuild and repair Gulf coast schools. While that’s not enough to sustain the continuing recovery efforts, he only promised to “help” rebuild schools, not solve all of the problems. So we rate this one Promise Kept.


Email interview with Vincent Rossmeier, policy director at the Cowen Institute at Tulane University, Aug. 4, 2015

Email interview with Brittany Trotter, spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Aug. 4, 2015

U.S. Department of Education, ‘Mississippi to Receive More Than $129 Million in Additional Recovery Funds,’ June 15, 2000

U.S. Department of Education, ‘Louisiana to Receive More Than $191 Million in Additional Recovery Funds,’ May 10, 2000

Federal Emergency Management Agency, Mississippi Hurricane Katrina, July 30, 2015

Federal Emergency Management Agency, Louisiana — Hurricanes Katrina & Rita, July 30, 2015

Federal Emergency Management Agency, Innovative Solutions Put New Orleans Area Students Back in School, Aug. 3, 2015

Recovery School District, ‘School Facilities Master Plan for Orleans Parish,’ Oct. 2011

Cowen Institute, ‘The State of Public Education in New Orleans, 10 Years After Hurricane Katrina,’ June 2015

Louisiana Department of Education, Recovery School District, accessed Aug. 4, 2015

Times-Picayune, New Orleans public schools pre-Katrina and now, by the numbers,’ Aug. 4, 2014

Times-Picayune, $1.8 billion from FEMA for Hurricane Katrina school rebuilding is ‘worth the wait,’ Sen. Mary Landrieu says,’ Aug. 26, 2010

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