Visiting on tidy porch stoops and dining at a thriving corner eatery, President Barack Obama paid tribute to New Orleans on Thursday as an extraordinary example of renewal and resilience 10 years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
"The fact that we can make this many strides 10 years after a terrible, epic disaster, I think, is an indication of the kind of spirit we have in this city," Obama declared after walking door to door in the historic Treme section of a city reborn from tragedy. He cautioned, though, 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.
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There is more to be done to confront "structural inequities that existed long before the storm happened," he added.
In his remarks, 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, 92, was one of those to chat with Obama, and pronounced herself a fan of the man, saying he'd handled "a rough road."
"That's all you have to do: handle what's handed to you," Chase said, 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 "Wheezy." He stopped off for lunch with some local young men at Willie Mae Scotch House before heading to a new community center in the hard-hit Lower 9th Ward.
"Not long ago, our gathering here in the Lower 9th might have seemed unlikely," Obama said in speech excerpts released in advance. "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."
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, where the water once stood 17 feet deep — spoke to the stark contrasts that remain. It sits near nicely renovated homes but also next to a boarded-up wooden house. The area is filled with vacant lots where houses used to stand, so overgrown that local residents sometimes refer to it as the wilderness and worry about snakes hiding in the grass.
Colette Pichon Battle, executive director of Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, cautioned against slapping too happy a face on New Orleans, 10 years out from disaster.
"New Orleans is neither the place it was, nor the place it should be after Katrina," she said in a statement. "Rebuilding since the storm favors privileged private enterprise and this illusion of recovery is not progress."
City residents, too, spoke of uneven recovery.
"I think we have a long way to go," said Lisa Ross, 52, an appraiser. She said areas frequented by tourists have recovered tremendously but many neighborhoods have struggled.
Harold Washington, 54, a military retiree studying at Tulane, said the city is "better than it was." But he was sad that children are now bused all over town rather than attending neighborhood schools.