NEW ORLEANS — The despair uncorked by Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago quickly became a symbol of so much that was wrong with America — stark racial and economic inequality, government’s inaction in the face of enormous social problems, and a deep sense of vulnerability and lack of preparedness for the next disaster.
That dark moment helped propel Barack Obama into the White House because it seemed to reinforce his argument that the country deserved a better future, and that he embodied that future.
On Thursday, Obama returned to New Orleans to mark the 10th anniversary of Katrina at a newly built community center in the lower Ninth Ward and to tout the city as an example of American resilience, not just in the face Katrina, but crisis in general.
“Americans like you — the people of New Orleans . . . you’re what recovery has been all about. You’re why I’m confident that we can recover from crisis and start to move forward,” he said. “You’re the reason 13 million new jobs have been created. You’re the reason the unemployment rate fell from 10 percent to 5.3. You’re the reason that layoffs are near an all-time low.”
But Obama also recalled some of the ills exposed by Katrina: “What the storm revealed was another tragedy — one that had been brewing for decades,” he said. “New Orleans had long been plagued by structural inequality that left too many people, especially poor people of color, without good jobs or affordable health care or decent housing.”
But citizens have made an effort “to build the city as it should be,” he said. “And I’m here to say that on that larger project of a better, stronger, more just New Orleans, the progress that you have made is remarkable.”
For the president, the city’s recovery is a symbol of what engaged government can accomplish, and it’s a point of personal pride. “Across the board, I’ve made the recovery and rebuilding of the Gulf Coast a priority,” he said. “I made promises when I was a senator that I’d help. And I’ve kept those promises.”
But the commemorations come at a time when many of the problems of race and poverty that Katrina exposed seem as endemic now as they were then. The recent series of high-profile police shootings of black men, and the protests and riots they spawned from Ferguson, Mo., to Baltimore, have underscored how resistant to change many of the problems remain.
“Our work is not done when there’s still too many people who have yet to find good, affordable housing, and too many people — especially African American men — who can’t find a job,” Obama said.
“We’re at halftime,” said National Urban League President Marc Morial, the city’s former mayor, in an interview this week. “No one goes in at halftime and pops a champagne cork. No one goes in at halftime and wins a trophy.”
Obama said the New Orleans recovery has been very important to him and his administration and that it has become a model for disaster relief nationwide. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has doubled the number of vouchers available in the city, providing assistance for more than 17,000 households, and it has fully restored 98 percent of the public housing units damaged on the Gulf Coast a decade ago. The Education Department has invested more than $100 million in Louisiana since 2009, while the administration both greenlighted roughly $500 million in funding to rebuild New Orleans’s Charity Hospital and spent almost $1 billion to build a new Veterans Affairs Medical Center nearby.
“I can’t remember a time where I reached out to the administration on something and they didn’t eventually find a way to say, ‘Yes,’ ” said former senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who helped spearhead the fight for federal recovery funding. “If it wasn’t an immediate ‘yes,’ they searched every nook and cranny of the government and looked under every policy document to find a way to say, ‘Yes.’ ”
While New Orleans has made several concrete gains, including a strengthened education system and a revitalized business sector, it still confronts a persistent series of problems — some of them new, others decades old — including high illiteracy and unemployment rates as well as a battered transportation system. The child poverty rate is 39 percent, 17 percentage points above the national average and the same level it was a decade ago. There has been a 55 percent drop in available transit service, and Tulane University estimates there are 26,000 young people aged 16 to 24 in the city who are neither in school nor employed.
Obama acknowledged that as long as those problems persist, there was more to do: “That’s not a finished job. That’s not a full recovery.”
Melissa Sawyer, executive director of the Youth Empowerment Project, said that while the city has gotten aid from the government as well as the private and philanthropic sector, she is skeptical about the future of the recovery. Two major philanthropic grants to her group ran out in the past two years and haven’t been replaced. Of the $120 billion of federal government funds allocated for the Gulf Coast’s recovery, most of that is exhausted.
“I’m a fan of President Obama. But people on the ground are tired,” Sawyer said.
Just across the street from the Andrew P. Sanchez Community Center, a gutted home stood in the sun, its wooden frames exposed. Seventy-six-year-old Ann Cagnolatti, sitting in a chair waiting for the president to arrive, said that Obama “kept his promise” and that her flooded home in the Seventh Ward had been renovated with federal aid. But she added that she had to leave it because “a drug addict burned me out,” prompting more repairs.
Both Democrats and Republicans say the president and members of his Cabinet have devoted considerable attention to the Gulf Coast, often reading flexibility into regulations to make recovery efforts easier.
In interviews this week, top officials said the Katrina experience has changed the way the government conducts its disaster relief business: It now provides disaster funds without demanding buildings be replicated without changes; and new federal construction projects must adhere to stricter flood standards that take climate change projections into account.
“You’re also becoming a model for the nation when it comes to disaster response and resilience,” Obama said Thursday. “We learned lessons from Katrina.”
Days after Katrina hit, when he was still serving as a senator, Obama went to Houston with former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush to visit survivors of the storm. He publicly rejected the notion that George W. Bush’s administration had ignored New Orleans’s residents because they were black, a notion that had become so popular that rapper Kanye West blurted out during a telethon to help Katrina survivors, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
Obama suggested that incompetence, not racism, was the chief culprit.
“The ineptitude was colorblind,” Obama said.
“If Katrina was initially an example of what happens when government fails, the recovery has been an example of what’s possible when government works together.” Obama said Thursday.
The president credited New Orleans residents with setting an example that has sparked everything from the nation’s economic recovery to same-sex marriage “and a clean energy revolution is helping to save this planet.”
“That’s what you’ve gotten started,” he said, noting at one point that many presidential hopefuls are now criticizing the country’s direction. “But it’s important that we remember what’s right, and what’s good, and what’s hopeful about this country.”
On Thursday, Obama walked down the streets of Tremé, one of the country’s oldest black neighborhoods, in rolled shirtsleeves as a small crowd cheered. While the neighborhood has 21 percent fewer residents now, a new 812 mixed-income public housing development is being built. As Obama turned onto “Magic” Street, there were two rows of large, bright single-family and duplex homes in pastel and primary colors.
Obama also lunched privately over fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House — which has been in the city for half a century and has come back after suffering major damage — with elected officials and four young African American men who were affected by the storm and have rebuilt their lives.
Norman Francis, who just stepped down as president of Xavier University and chaired the Louisiana Recovery Authority, said blacks on the Gulf Coast had certain “expectations” of the president.
“People felt he had a natural relationship, that he would not let African Americans suffer when they needed help,” Francis said.
As close as the president’s political bond is with New Orleans, the relationship has not always been trouble free. Francis recalled a 2007 visit to the legendary Creole restaurant Dooky Chase with Obama. The future president’s decision to add hot sauce to the house gumbo before tasting it prompted a sharp rebuke from the restaurant’s owner, Leah Chase.
Chase, now 92, was on hand to welcome the president Thursday as he walked through Tremé.
“He’s done a good job,” she told reporters. “He knew it was going to be a rough road. He handled it. And that’s all you have to do: handle what’s handed to you.”
“So if I keep feeding him he’ll be okay,” Chase said, adding that before Obama left the White House, “I’ll send him some gumbo.”