NEW ORLEANS (AP) – President Barack Obama says New Orleans is “moving forward” a decade after Hurricane Katrina dealt it a devastating blow.
Obama was marking the storm’s 10th anniversary by meeting Thursday with residents who continue to rebuild their lives and communities. He also planned to speak at a newly opened community center in the Lower 9th Ward, a largely African-American neighborhood that was one of the hardest hit by the storm. It 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,” Obama said on his ninth visit to the city. He also visited on the hurricane’s fifth anniversary in 2010.
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 of them 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 failure at every level of government. The storm went down in history as the costliest natural disaster ever 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 since the storm, 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 regained much of its pre-storm population, new businesses are opening faster than the national average and better flood protections 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 said 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 said. “Because this is a city that slowly, unmistakably, together, is moving forward.”
Obama said 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,” the president said in the remarks.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama would also 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 Wednesday.
But 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 to 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.”