Obama: New Orleans making a comeback under my administration

Obama: New Orleans making a comeback under my administration

NEW ORLEANS — President Obama said New Orleans was making a comeback under his administration and defended his response to the BP oil spill in a speech marking the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Speaking at Xavier University, a historically black college, Obama singled out the city’s schools as a places of “innovation and reform” and touted the multi-billion dollar investment his administration has made in local parishes.


“As a result, we’re actually seeing rising achievement, and New Orleans is becoming a model for the nation,” Obama said. “This is yet another sign that you’re not just rebuilding; you’re rebuilding stronger than before.”

Obama was in New Orleans for the first time as president to mark the storm that devastated the city. The damage done by Katrina still scars many of the city’s neighborhoods and some 100,000 residents have yet to return five years on.

As a presidential candidate, Obama gained traction by criticizing George W. Bush for his administration’s response to the disaster and for failing to instill a sense of urgency in the recovery effort in the wake of the storm.

But Obama is now saddled with helping the region recover from both Katrina and the BP spill that lasted over three months — a responsibility fraught with political risk.

The administration spent the week leading up to Obama’s address touting the number of people displaced by the storm who have returned since 2008 and the strides the schools have made. But in his speech, Obama admitted more work needed to be done and made a renewed commitment to helping the area recover from the disasters.

“I wanted to come here and tell the people of this city directly: My administration is going to stand with you — and fight alongside you — until the job is done,” he said.

Obama’s administration has faced some criticism for its handling of the rebuilding effort. It ran into trouble earlier this year when Education Secretary Arne DuncanArne Starkey DuncanProviding the transparency parents deserve Everyone's talking about a national tutoring corps; here's what we need to know to do it well More than 200 Obama officials sign letter supporting Biden's stimulus plan MORE linked the hurricane and educational reforms in the city. In January, Duncan said Katrina was "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans" because it forced the city to revamp its low-performing public schools. He later apologized.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Duncan's phrasing was “wrong.”

“I think [the storm] gave us the responsibility of building back something that should not ever have gotten to where it was before,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday. “It's a — it's a huge responsibility and it's one that we should take very strongly.”

Duncan was on ABC's "This Week" Sunday to tout the administration's steps on education reform.

Obama also touted his administration’s investment in a revamped 350-mile-long system of levees and damns. The new system means the city will no longer be playing “Russian roulette” during hurricane season, he said.

But New Orleans-area Reps. Anh "Joseph" Cao (R-La.) and Stephen Scalise (R-La.) have criticized the system for only providing protection from Category 3 storm surges; Katrina eventually reached Category 5 strength. The storm surge is what overwhelmed the city’s levee system and flooded the city with a deluge of water.

“We would like to see a commitment to category-5 flood protection,” Scalise told The Hill. “That is a big hurricane recovery issue that the president has yet to respond to.”

Regarding the BP spill, Obama said his administration’s response was “the largest response to an environmental disaster.”

“We are going to stand with you until the oil is cleaned up, until the environment is restored, until polluters are held accountable, until communities are made whole and until this region is all the way back on its feet,” he said.

In an interview with NBC's Brian Williams televised Sunday evening, Obama dismissed critics' suggestions the BP spill was his Katrina.

"It's just not accurate," Obama said. "The fact is because of the sturdiness and swiftness of the response, there's a lot less oil hitting these shores and these beaches than anybody would have anticipated."

The spill in the Gulf of Mexico is one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history but it doesn’t match the scale of devastation wracked by Katrina. And it will likely be the rebuilding of New Orleans that will weigh more heavily on Obama’s legacy.

With that in mind, the president called for New Orleans to be thought of as “a community working together to meet shared challenges,” not one left behind and abandoned by Washington. 

This story was updated at 7:25 p.m.