NEW ORLEANS – President Barack Obama marked the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Sunday with a solidarity visit to this city still recovering from the devastating storm, pledging to “stand with you and fight alongside you until the job is done.”
“The work ahead will not be easy,” Obama told an audience of several hundred students, professors and community leaders at Xavier University, a campus that was shut down for months after the hurricane. “There will be setbacks. There will be challenges along the way. But today, thanks to you and the people of this great city, New Orleans is blossoming once more.”
About 1,800 people died along the Gulf Coast when Katrina blew ashore five years ago, many of them in this iconic city. The storm left as much as 80 percent of New Orleans underwater and exposed a federal emergency response system unprepared for such a catastrophe.
In his speech before a largely partisan crowd, Obama called Katrina “a natural disaster but also a man-made catastrophe – a shameful breakdown in government that left countless men, women and children abandoned and alone.” His message amounted to a promise to the city that such laxity before the storm and unresponsiveness in the crucial days afterward would not be repeated.
Obama arrived here from Martha’s Vineyard, where he and his family just concluded a 10-day vacation. He was met at the airport under clouds heavy with rain by Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a Democrat, along with members of the state’s congressional delegation.
Several dozen demonstrators stood in the hard rain to greet his arrival at Xavier’s urban campus, most of them demanding more answers and action to address the oil spill. The audience inside received him warmly, frequently interrupting his speech with applause.
In his remarks, Obama used principals and students, musicians and the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints to describe a city that, against all odds, rebounded from the flooding and loss of life. The speech contained a set of homilies – he drew once from the Book of Job – about resilience and community.
Members of the president’s Cabinet have traveled along the Gulf Coast leading up to the anniversary in a show of federal support for reconstruction efforts, the pace of which has been uneven across the region.
Obama listed several steps his administration has taken to expedite the recovery, including efforts to improve relationships between federal and local officials, help root out corruption in the city’s housing agency to speed construction of replacement housing, and work with local officials to aid an overwhelmed police department and a badly damaged public education system.
With hurricane season under way and a stormy day as backdrop for his visit, Obama said his administration is concentrating on preparations in the event of another devastating storm “because we should not be playing Russian roulette every hurricane season.”
Obama described repairs to the levee system that failed during Katrina, letting floodwaters drown many neighborhoods, as “the largest civil works project in American history.” He said the system of fortified levees with be finished next year “so that this city is protected against a 100-year storm.”
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