Obama Says New Orleans Transformed to Symbol of Resilience After Katrina

President Barack Obama said the work of New Orleans residents after Hurricane Katrina has transformed the city from a symbol of catastrophe to one of resilience and unity.

Obama today marked the fifth anniversary of Katrina slamming into New Orleans with a speech at Xavier University of Louisiana in which he reaffirmed the federal commitment to the city as it continues rebuilding from the storm and copes with the BP Plc oil spill.

“New Orleans could have remained a symbol of destruction and decay; of a storm that came and the inadequate response that followed,” Obama said. “That is not what happened.”

The president offered no new programs to aid the region’s recovery from the storm or the oil spill. He listed much of the work that has been done by local residents and officials and promised to continue the federal government’s assistance, including completing a fortified levee system by next year.

The New Orleans metropolitan area has recovered more than 90 percent of its population and 85 percent of its jobs since Katrina flooded most of the city and killed almost 1,000 in Louisiana and more along the rest of the Gulf of Mexico coast, according to a study by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

The unemployment rate in the New Orleans metro area was 8.2 percent as of June, lower than the national average, Labor Department figures show. In the three months after Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005, the rate was more than 15 percent.

Rebuilding Efforts

“Five years ago, many questioned whether people could ever return to this city,” Obama said. “Today, New Orleans is one of the fastest growing cities in America, with a big new surge in small businesses.”

The president listed some of the rebuilding efforts by New Orleans residents, including schools, houses and health care centers, that have been accomplished, he said, “because of all of you -- all the advocates, all the organizers who are here today, folks standing behind me who worked so hard, who never gave up hope, you are all leading the way toward a better future for this city.”

Obama and local leaders said the rebuilding work isn’t finished.

The city still “has a long way to go” in recovering from the damage, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said today on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“It’s going to require a huge lift by the entire country,” he said. “You cannot take it as a fait accompli that this city is going to come back.”

More Resources Needed

Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, said the federal government needs to put more resources into the city and the Gulf Coast. “The federal government has underinvested in it year after year,” she said on the NBC program. “It’s time” for the region “to get its fair share, and we most certainly intend to do that,” she said.

The federal government has spent or committed almost $114 billion in recovery and relief efforts for Katrina and two following hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, said Margaret Reilly, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget. That includes housing loans, grants and the cost of reconstructing levees for 100-year flood protection.

The new challenge for the region is the oil spill. It was triggered by an explosion and fire April 20 aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig about 40 miles (64 kilometers) off the Louisiana coast. Eleven rig workers were killed, and the damaged well spewed an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf.

Fishing, Tourism

The spill shut down some commercial fishing areas along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida and kept visitors away from the region’s beaches. The fishing industry contributes $1 billion to the gross domestic product, and tourism and recreation another $13 billion, according to the National Ocean Economics Program.

Linda St. Martin from Gulfport, Mississippi, was in New Orleans to help local fisherman and said she wanted to hear more from the president about the oil spill and seafood safety.

“Boy, is he missing the big story of the day,” said St. Martin, 63, at a rally in New Orleans.

Almost half of Orleans Parish residents, 49 percent, said the oil spill will cause more damage than Katrina, compared with 40 percent who said the hurricane was more damaging, according to a poll released Aug. 13 by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The survey was conducted May 26-June 27 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Drilling Moratorium

Local officials have been critical of Obama’s decision to impose a moratorium, set to expire Nov. 30, on drilling in waters deeper than 500 feet. The moratorium idled 33 rigs and may cost 23,247 jobs, by the administration’s estimate. Two rigs, owned by Houston-based Diamond Offshore Drilling Inc., have since left the Gulf to drill elsewhere.

While Obama didn’t address the temporary drilling ban in his remarks, he promised to keep up pressure on BP.

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

An Aug. 26 report by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based research group, found the moratorium is no longer needed because new rules reduce the risk of an uncontrolled spill.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kate Andersen Brower in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, at Kandersen7@bloomberg.net

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