Pres­i­dent Obama tells peo­ple of New Or­leans: ‘you in­spire me’


U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama held out the peo­ple of New Or­leans as an ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­am­ple of re­newal and re­silience 10 years af­ter the dev­as­ta­tion of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, while vis­it­ing res­i­dents on tidy porch stoops and sam­pling the fried chicken at a cor­ner res­tau­rant.

Obama spoke Thurs­day to hun­dreds of res­i­dents as­sem­bled at a bustling new com­mu­nity cen­ter in an area of the Lower 9th Ward that was once un­der 5.2 me­ters of wa­ter

“There’s some­thing in you guys that is just ir­re­press­ible,” he told the crowd. “The peo­ple of New Or­leans didn’t just in­spire me, you inspired all of Amer­ica.”

Obama held out the city’s come­back as a metaphor for what’s hap­pen­ing all across a na­tion that has moved from eco­nomic cri­sis to higher ground.

“Look at what’s hap­pened here,” he de­clared, speak­ing of a trans­formed Amer­i­can city that was once “dark and un­der­wa­ter.”

Still, Obama ac­knowl­edged that much re­mains to be done. And af­ter walk­ing door to door in the his­toric Treme sec­tion of a city reborn from tragedy, he cau­tioned that “just be­cause the hous­ing is nice doesn’t mean our job is done.”

Ar­eas of the city still suf­fer from high poverty, he said, and young peo­ple still take the wrong path.

There is more to be done to con­front “struc­tural in­equities that ex­isted long be­fore the storm hap­pened,” he added.

In his re­marks at the com­mu­nity cen­ter, Obama blended the same themes of re­silience and re­newal that he drew from en­coun­ters with the sturdy res­i­dents he met along Magic Street and at other lo­ca­tions.

Leah Chase, the 92- year- old pro­pri­etor of Dooky Chase’s Res­tau­rant, was one of those to chat with Obama. She pro­nounced her­self a fan of the man, say­ing he’d han­dled “a rough road.”

Chase — who’s known as the “Queen of Cre­ole Cui­sine” — said, “That’s all you have to do: han­dle what’s handed to you,” voic­ing what could be a credo for the city.

Obama was clearly en­er­gized by his vis­its, at one point break­ing into a song from “The Jef­fer­sons” sit­com af­ter meet­ing a young woman who calls her­self “Ouisie.” He stopped for fried chicken at Wil­lie Mae’s Scotch House, and pro­nounced the re­sult­ing grease stain on his suit a good in­di­ca­tion that he’d en­joyed his stay in the city.

He held out the com­mu­nity cen­ter as “an ex­am­ple of what is pos­si­ble when, in the face of tragedy and in the face of hard­ship, good peo­ple come to­gether to lend a hand and, brick by brick, block by block, neigh­bor­hood by neigh­bor­hood, you build a bet­ter fu­ture.”

“And that more than any other rea­son is why I’ve come back here to­day,” he said.

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 in New Or­leans. Video of res­i­dents seek­ing refuge on rooftops, in­side the Su­per­dome and at the con­ven­tion cen­ter dom­i­nated news cov­er­age as Ka­t­rina came to sym­bol­ize gov­ern­ment fail­ure at ev­ery level.

In his speech, Obama said Ka­t­rina helped ex­pose 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.

The set­ting of his ad­dress at the com­mu­nity cen­ter spoke to the stark con­trasts that re­main. It sits near nicely ren­o­vated homes but also next to a boarded-up wooden house.

Co­lette Pi­chon Bat­tle, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Gulf Coast Cen­ter for Law & Pol­icy, cau­tioned against slap­ping too happy a face on New Or­leans, say­ing “re­build­ing since the storm fa­vors priv­i­leged pri­vate en­ter­prise and this il­lu­sion of re­cov­ery is not progress.” Benac re­ported from Washington. As­so­ci­ated Press writ­ers Re­becca San­tana and Kevin McGill in New Or­leans and Melinda Des­latte in Ba­ton Rouge, Louisiana, con­trib­uted to this re­port.

AP / Bill Haber

(Right) In this Aug. 30, 2005 file photo, peo­ple walk through flood­wa­ters on Canal Street in New Or­leans af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina dev­as­tated the Louisiana and Mis­sis­sippi coasts.

(Left) In this Aug. 30, 2005 file photo, a woman car­ries bot­tled wa­ter as she walks in oil-coated flood­wa­ters in down­town New Or­leans.

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