NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Walking door to door in a city reborn after tragedy, President Barack Obama says New Orleans is moving forward a decade after Hurricane Katrina. He offered the city as an example of what can happen when people rally to build a better future after suffering a devastating blow.
The president’s first stop on a visit marking the storm’s 10th anniversary was Treme, one of the oldest black neighborhoods in America and an area that experienced significant flooding during Katrina. A cheering crowd welcomed him to an area where homes inundated by the storm have been rebuilt.
As the president went from house to house, he chatted with residents, calling out, “How you doing?” and, “We appreciate you.”
Reflecting on the improved surroundings, Obama declared, “The fact that we can make this many strides 10 years after a terrible epic disaster, I think, is an indication of the kind of spirit we have in this city.”
It was an informal version of the broader message Obama planned to deliver later at a newly opened community center in the Lower 9th Ward, one of the hardest-hit areas of the city and one that is still struggling to recover.
“Not long ago, our gathering here in the Lower 9th might have seemed unlikely,” Obama said in speech excerpts released in advance by the White House. “But today, this new community center stands as a symbol of the extraordinary resilience of this city and its people, of the entire Gulf Coast, indeed, of the United States of America. You are an example of what’s possible when, in the face of tragedy and hardship, good people come together to lend a hand, and to build a better future.”
“That, more than any other reason, is why I’ve come back here today,” said Obama, making his ninth visit to the city. He also visited on the hurricane’s fifth anniversary in 2010.
The president stopped for lunch in Treme with some local young men at Willie Mae’s corner restaurant, apparently a return visit. Obama noted that on his last visit, he didn’t have the fried chicken.
Obama was a new U.S. senator when Katrina’s powerful winds and driving rain bore down on Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005. The storm caused major damage to the Gulf Coast from Texas to central Florida while powering a storm surge that breached the system of levees meant to protect New Orleans from flooding.
Nearly 2,000 people died, most in New Orleans. Eighty percent of the city was flooded for weeks. One million people were displaced.
Video of residents seeking refuge on rooftops, inside the Superdome and at the convention center dominated news coverage as Katrina came to symbolize government failure at every level. The storm went down in history as the costliest natural disaster to strike the U.S., with $150 billion in damage to homes and other property. It was also one of the deadliest.
In his planned speech, Obama said Katrina helped expose structural inequalities that long plagued New Orleans and left too many people, especially minorities, without good jobs, affordable health care or decent housing and too many kids growing up in the midst of violent crime and attending inefficient schools.
Ten years out from Katrina, the rebirth underway in New Orleans has been helped by billions of dollars in federal recovery money, much of it funneled to the city under Obama’s watch. The city has recovered much of its pre-storm population, new businesses are opening faster than the national average and better flood protection plans are in place.
Still, income inequality and rising crime rates are among the challenges that remain in a place Mayor Mitch Landrieu calls “America’s comeback city.”
Obama says acknowledging the loss and pain Katrina caused is important, “not to harp on what happened, but to memorialize it.”
“We do this not in order to dwell in the past, but in order to keep moving forward,” he says. “Because this is a city that slowly, unmistakably, together, is moving forward.”
Obama says the rebuilding was not simply to restore New Orleans as it had been. “It was to build a city as it should be – a city where everyone, no matter who they are or what they look like or how much money they’ve got has an opportunity to make it.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama would stress that the federal government and communities need to start investing in “resilience” so that they will be ready for the more intense storms and wildfires that a warming planet will bring.
“There’s no denying what scientists tell us, which is that there’s reason to be concerned about these storms getting worse and more violent,” he told reporters.
Obama’s plan to sound a fresh alarm about climate change didn’t sit well with Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican waging a long-shot bid for his party’s presidential nomination who told the president that the anniversary is a time to mourn the loss of loved ones, not espouse “the divisive political agenda of liberal environmental activism.”
Jindal, who met Obama’s plane on arrival in Louisiana, has expressed some doubt about human influence on the climate.
“A lecture on climate change would do nothing to improve upon what we are already doing,” Jindal told Obama in a letter Wednesday. “Quite the opposite; it would distract from the losses we have suffered, diminish the restoration effort we have made and overshadow the miracle that has been the Louisiana comeback.”