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Hell and high water

A few days before the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this month, Barack Obama sat for an "exclusive" interview with a local newspaper in New Orleans. It contained some bland assurances that the city is now safe, and some anodyne declarations of the city's place in the president's priorities. But undercutting the pep talk were warning signs as ominous as the spinning cyclone symbol on a television weather map.

The president used the phrase that grates on New Orleanians like no other: "natural disaster". This despite major reports by two pro bono teams of forensic engineers - the UC Berkeley-led Independent Levee Investigation Team and the Louisiana state government's team - which identified the scale of the catastrophe as resulting from poorly designed levees and flood walls. The ILIT report called it "the worst man-made engineering disaster since Chernobyl".

Asked whether he would reauthorise the position of Gulf Coast recovery "tsar", a co-ordinating post established by George W Bush and due to expire at the end of September, Obama sent a clear message that he wouldn't. Would he visit the city to commemorate the fourth anniversary? The president promised to come down "before the end of the year".

Four years on, New Orleans has survived largely due to its own resilience, with some help from late-arriving federal money to compensate homeowners (but not renters or landlords) for the wholesale destruction. The most recent report from the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, delivers upbeat statistics: the city is weathering the recession far better than most urban areas. But the hole in the doughnut is the shortage of affordable rental housing for low-paid workers, which has not been addressed, so far, at any level of government.

A far-reaching programme of public education reform is making progress, but health care is still in intensive care. In 2005, the first floor and basement of the art-deco Charity Hospital were flooded. It has not reopened, and - given the squabbling among the various bodies responsible for its future - may not. Where can poorer people get medical care in post-Katrina New Orleans? Good question, although neighbourhood clinics are being established. Meanwhile, as recent reports by a Washington newspaper have noted, symptoms of traumatic stress keep emerging. A large percentage of mental-health workers fled the city, not to return.

New Orleans depends on two projects to assure its future: the restoration of the coastal wetlands (which help to limit hurricane damage) and the city's "protection system", which is being rebuilt by the same agency that screwed it up so badly last time - the US Army Corps of Engineers. Not a dollar of the $1trn economic stimulus package has gone to either project; in March the corps announced that, due to limited funding, part of the protection system will be rebuilt using a method "technically not superior" to its predecessor.

This year the city has avoided its usual August sleepiness, and is bustling with the energy of new young entrepreneurs, artists, musicians and writers responding to recent history with brave new gestures. The mayor's popularity rating has sunk to the level of his competence. He may or may not join the parade of local officials nailed by a zealous federal prosecutor, but his era is ending.

The cloud over New Orleans, four years after the waters came, is cast by a second consecutive national administration that has - to quote Dick Cheney on Vietnam - "other priorities".

Harry Shearer has a home in New Orleans. The live concert DVD of "Unwigged and Unplugged", with performances of songs from "This Is Spinal Tap" and more, is released on 14 September

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years