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Written by Jessie Lee
US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet the crowd at Xavier University during a ceremony on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans on August 29, 2010. Obama arrived in still-struggling New Orleans to join residents marking five years since flood waters driven by Hurricane Katrina inundated the famous jazz capital. (Photo credit JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Today the President and First Lady were down in New Orleans, joined by members of the Cabinet who have been working on recovery from Hurricane Katrina since they came into office. The President spoke at Xavier University
on the fifth anniversary of the disaster.
It’s been five years since Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. There’s no need to dwell on what you experienced and what the world witnessed. We all remember it keenly: water pouring through broken levees; mothers holding their children above the waterline; people stranded on rooftops begging for help; bodies lying in the streets of a great American city. It was a natural disaster but also a manmade catastrophe — a shameful breakdown in government that left countless men, and women, and children abandoned and alone.
And shortly after the storm, I came down to Houston to spend time with some of the folks who had taken shelter there. And I’ll never forget what one woman told me. She said, “We had nothing before the hurricane. And now we’ve got less than nothing.”
In the years that followed, New Orleans could have remained a symbol of destruction and decay; of a storm that came and the inadequate response that followed. It was not hard to imagine a day when we’d tell our children that a once vibrant and wonderful city had been laid low by indifference and neglect. But that’s not what happened. It’s not what happened at Ben Franklin. It’s not what happened here at Xavier. It’s not what happened across New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast. (Applause.) Instead this city has become a symbol of resilience and of community and of the fundamental responsibility that we have to one another.
And we see that here at Xavier. Less than a month after the storm struck, amidst debris and flood-damaged buildings, President Francis promised that this university would reopen in a matter of months. (Applause.) Some said he was crazy. Some said it couldn’t happen. But they didn’t count on what happens when one force of nature meets another. (Laughter.) And by January — four months later — class was in session. Less than a year after the storm, I had the privilege of delivering a commencement address to the largest graduating class in Xavier’s history. That is a symbol of what New Orleans is all about. (Applause.)
He told other stories of hope and inspiration, including that of his Surgeon General, “Xavier grad Dr. Regina Benjamin, who mortgaged her home, maxed out her credit cards so she could reopen her Bayou la Batre clinic to care for victims of the storm.” But he also recognized that there’s more to do, and made clear that his Administration has been working on it:
Now, I don’t have to tell you that there are still too many vacant and overgrown lots. There are still too many students attending classes in trailers. There are still too many people unable to find work. And there are still too many New Orleanians, folks who haven’t been able to come home. So while an incredible amount of progress has been made, on this fifth anniversary, I wanted to come here and tell the people of this city directly: My administration is going to stand with you — and fight alongside you — until the job is done. (Applause.) Until New Orleans is all the way back, all the way. (Applause.)
When I took office, I directed my Cabinet to redouble our efforts, to put an end to the turf wars between agencies, to cut the red tape and cut the bureaucracy. (Applause.) I wanted to make sure that the federal government was a partner — not an obstacle — to recovery here in the Gulf Coast. And members of my Cabinet — including EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, who grew up in Pontchartrain Park — (applause) — they have come down here dozens of times. Shaun Donovan has come down here dozens of times. This is not just to make appearances. It’s not just to get photo ops. They came down here to listen and to learn and make real the changes that were necessary so that government was actually working for you.
So for example, efforts to rebuild schools and hospitals, to repair damaged roads and bridges, to get people back to their homes — they were tied up for years in a tangle of disagreements and byzantine rules. So when I took office, working with your outstanding delegation, particularly Senator Mary Landrieu, we put in place a new way of resolving disputes. (Applause.) We put in place a new way of resolving disputes so that funds set aside for rebuilding efforts actually went toward rebuilding efforts. And as a result, more than 170 projects are getting underway — work on firehouses, and police stations, and roads, and sewer systems, and health clinics, and libraries, and universities.
We’re tackling the corruption and inefficiency that has long plagued the New Orleans Housing Authority. We’re helping homeowners rebuild and making it easier for renters to find affordable options. And we’re helping people to move out of temporary homes. You know, when I took office, more than three years after the storm, tens of thousands of families were still stuck in disaster housing — many still living in small trailers that had been provided by FEMA. We were spending huge sums of money on temporary shelters when we knew it would be better for families, and less costly for taxpayers, to help people get into affordable, stable, and more permanent housing. So we’ve helped make it possible for people to find those homes, and we’ve dramatically reduced the number of families in emergency housing.
He discussed how his prioritizing health care and education will benefit New Orleans, noting in particular that, “Just this Friday, my administration announced a final agreement on $1.8 billion dollars for Orleans Parish schools.” And of course there is the matter of ensuring such a disaster never occurs again, which meant restoring accountability and competency at FEMA as well as restoring stability locally:
Now, even as we continue our recovery efforts, we’re also focusing on preparing for future threats so that there is never another disaster like Katrina. The largest civil works project in American history is underway to build a fortified levee system. And as I — just as I pledged as a candidate, we’re going to finish this system by next year so that this city is protected against a 100-year storm. We should not be playing Russian roulette every hurricane season. (Applause.) And we’re also working to restore protective wetlands and natural barriers that were not only damaged by Katrina — were not just damaged by Katrina but had been rapidly disappearing for decades.
In closing, having touched on the more recent tragedy of the BP oil spill that befell the Gulf Coast, the President spoke on perhaps the most well known story of perseverence of all:
And when I came here four years ago, one thing I found striking was all the greenery that had begun to come back. And I was reminded of a passage from the book of Job. “There is hope for a tree if it be cut down that it will sprout again, and that its tender branch will not cease.” The work ahead will not be easy, and there will be setbacks. There will be challenges along the way. But thanks to you, thanks to the great people of this great city, New Orleans is blossoming again.
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President Barack Obama speaks at Xavier University on August 29, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Today marks the five year anniversary of when Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast and the storm took over 1,800 lives and devastated the region. (Photo by Pool/Getty Images North America)
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