New Orleans, Louisiana – Calling the federal response to Hurricane Katrina “a shameful breakdown in government,” President Barack Obama said Sunday as rebuilding continues, officials are looking ahead to avoid a repeat when future disasters strike.
Speaking at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans to mark the fifth anniversary of Katrina, Obama said construction of a fortified levee system to protect the city is underway and will be finished by next year, “We should not be playing Russian roulette every hurricane season,” he said.
“There is no need to dwell on what you experienced and what the world witnessed,” the president said, speaking to a crowd that included current New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and members of Louisiana’s Congressional delegation.
“We all remember it keenly — water pouring through broken levees; mothers holding their children above the waterline; people stranded on rooftops begging for help; and bodies lying in the streets of a great American city,” Obama said. “It was a natural disaster but also a man-made catastrophe; a shameful breakdown in government that left countless men and women and children abandoned and alone.”
But the president spoke of the resilience of city residents. “Because of all of you — all the advocates, all the organizers who are here today, folks standing behind me who have worked so hard and never gave up hope, you are all leading the way toward a better future for this city with innovative approaches to fight poverty, improve health care, reduce crime and create opportunities for young people — because of you, New Orleans is coming back.”
The president noted that New Orleans is now one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities, and small businesses have surged. “Five years ago, the Saints had to play every game on the road because of the damage to the Superdome,” he said. “Two
weeks ago, we welcomed the Saints to the White House as Super Bowl champions.”
“I don’t have to tell you that there are still too many vacant and overgrown lots,” Obama said. “There are still too many students attending classes in trailers. There are still too many people unable to find work. And there’s still too many New Orleans 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, until New Orleans is all the way back.”
He said his administration has made efforts to reduce red tape and turf wars between agencies, and has put in place a new way to handle disputes, with help from Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana. More than 170 projects are now underway as a result, he said.
In addition, federal officials are tackling “corruption and inefficiency that has long plagued the New Orleans Housing Authority,” he said.
And a group led by Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is examining disaster recovery nationwide. “We’re improving coordination on the ground, modernizing emergency communications and helping families plan for a crisis,” Obama said. “And we’re putting in place reforms so that never again in America is someone left behind in a disaster because they’re living with a disability or because they’re elderly or because they’re infirm. That will not happen again.”
On Friday, he said, his administration announced a final agreement on $1.8 billion for Orleans Parish schools, money the president said had been “locked up for years, but now it’s freed up, so folks here can determine how best to restore the school system.”
In addition, the largest civil works project in American history — the construction of a fortified levee system to protect New Orleans — is underway and will be finished by next year, he said.
“Together we are helping to make New Orleans a place that stands for what we can do in America — not just for what we can’t do,” he said. “And ultimately, that must be the legacy of Katrina: not one of neglect, but of action; not one of indifference, but of empathy; not of abandonment, but of a community working together to meet shared challenges.”
Some wounds, the president acknowledged, have not yet healed, and “there are some losses that can’t be repaid. For many who lived through those harrowing days five years ago, there are searing memories that time may not erase. But even amid so much tragedy, we saw the stirrings of a brighter day.”
He said he recalled being struck, upon visiting New Orleans four years ago, by the amount of greenery that had returned.
“The work ahead will not be easy,” he said, “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.”