During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama drew a distinction with President George W. Bush on how he would handle the recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Among other things, Obama promised to "fight to ensure more Katrina-related recovery or reconstruction activities can be done by local residents."
This promise emerged from concerns that big, out-of-state companies were swooping in to take federal contracts that otherwise could have supported the employment of the many local workers who suddenly found themselves jobless due to the storm.
The flak reached almost ridiculous heights when, just weeks after the storm, a Department of Homeland Security official resigned after he was rebuffed in his efforts to line up a group of Louisiana chefs and restaurants to provide 26,000 meals a day to distressed residents. Instead, they were provided mass-produced military MREs, or meals-ready-to-eat. "Louisiana makes the best food in the world," Doug Doan, the DHS business liaison who resigned, told USA Today. "To be bringing in beanie weenies from Florida or peanut butter sandwiches from Ohio at a greater cost ... is an outrage."
Around that time, federal agencies began to increase their efforts to target more of their dollars at local companies.
The most recent data we could find comes from a Government Accountability Office report that covers fiscal years 2005 through 2011. The report does not break down the data by presidential administration.
According to GAO, federal agencies directly awarded $20.5 billion in contracts over that seven-year period for recovery efforts related to the Gulf Coast hurricanes. Of that, about 13.3 percent went to small businesses in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Texas. Meanwhile, of the $2.7 billion that went to small businesses in those four states, about 29 percent went to firms that were classified as "small, disadvantaged businesses.”
In the New Orleans area, the number of out-of-state contractors that were competing with local firms and workers for construction jobs have continued to diminish since 2010, said Elizabeth Fussell, a Washington State University sociologist who taught at Tulane University during the Katrina and post-Katrina period and who has written extensively about the storm's aftermath.
"The construction jobs around town now are large-scale jobs mostly being done by local construction firms that have a great deal of experience repairing the street car lines, underground drainage pipes and roads,” she said. "The workers now are experienced and local union workers.” However, it's not clear what impact local or federal laws had on this trend, she added.
In general, the federal contracting outlook for local Gulf Coast companies appears to have improved significantly since the early days of the recovery, and the administration deserves credit for making sure that one dollar of every $7.50 in federal contract money for the Gulf Coast recovery continues to go to small, local businesses. On the other hand, the situation started to improve under Bush, and it's not clear whether local employment prospects have increased under Obama -- or, if they did, whether policies adopted by the administration caused the increase. Due to this uncertainty, we rate this promise a Compromise.