By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2010; 9:29 PM
NEW ORLEANS - President 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 had just concluded a 10-day vacation. He was met at the airport under clouds heavy with rain by Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D), along with a few members of the state's congressional delegation.
His first stop was the Parkway Bakery and Tavern, a century-old landmark in the Mid-City neighborhood that Katrina submerged under 10 feet of water. He ate a shrimp po'-boy sandwich, a nod to the safety of gulf seafood after the BP oil spill, and kissed the cheek of the woman who took his order.
"We're still here, and we're just going to keep on building," Obama told the diners. "We're going to keep on working, all right?" As he worked the restaurant, a call came over the loudspeaker announcing, "Pickup, Barack."
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 and booing Republican officials, such as Jindal, whom Obama tried to thank for their work.
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.
"Ultimately, that must be the legacy of Katrina," Obama said. "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."
At Xavier, Katrina battered buildings and flooded classrooms, forcing its closure. But within five months classes began again largely because of the perseverance of its president, Norman Francis, who has led the university for more than four decades.
Obama delivered the university's commencement address less than a year after the storm, and 80 percent of its students, many of whom had left their damaged city and ruined homes for shelter elsewhere, had returned to class by January 2006.
"Some said he was crazy. Some said it couldn't happen," Obama said of Francis. "But they didn't count on what would happen when one force of nature met another."
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 region's recovery, including efforts to improve the 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.
The White House announced last week that the U.S. Education Department will allow the release of $1.8 billion to the New Orleans public school system, now a laboratory for reform. The money will be used to repair schools damaged by the storm in Orleans Parish.
The recent attention resembles the White House efforts this summer to assure Gulf Coast residents that federal resources were being deployed to protect the region as much as possible from the months-long oil spill, which harmed fisheries and oyster beds only now recovering from Katrina.
In his speech, Obama noted the effects of the spill, one of the largest environmental catastrophes in U.S. history. "Just as we have sought to ensure that we are doing what it takes to recover from Katrina," he said, "my administration has worked hard to match our efforts on the spill to what you need on the ground."
With hurricane season underway and a stormy day as backdrop for his visit, Obama said his administration is concentrating on preparations in the case 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."
"The truth is there are some wounds that do not heal," Obama said. "There are some losses that cannot be repaid. And for many who lived through those harrowing days five years ago, there is a searing memory that time will not erase. But even amid so much tragedy, we saw the stirrings of a brighter day."
After his speech, Obama and his wife, Michelle, visited Columbia Parc, one of the city's largest public housing projects, overhauled since the storm with federal assistance. In the rain, they walked among the development's new homes. Plans call for the construction of a new charter school for elementary and middle school students, as well as a new high school.