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Obama Celebrates Gulf Coast’s Resilience but Says Work Remains

President Barack Obama commemorated the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s deadly landfall in Louisiana and Mississippi with a speech Sunday that honored the lives lost and the rebuilding efforts that continue to this day.

“In the years that followed, New Orleans could have remained a symbol of destruction and decay; of a storm that came and the inadequate response that followed. … Instead this city has become a symbol of resilience and of community and of the fundamental responsibility that we have to one another,” Obama said in his speech at Xavier University of Louisiana, a Catholic and historically black school in New Orleans that resumed classes four months after the hurricane hit.

While celebrating the resilience of residents of the Gulf Coast, Obama also noted that much of the disaster had its roots in human error, including the levees that broke down, flaws in the government’s disaster response and bureaucratic entanglements that long held up relief. “It was a natural disaster but also a man-made catastrophe: a shameful breakdown in government that left countless men, women and children abandoned and alone,” he said.

“I don’t have to tell you that there are still too many vacant and overgrown lots,” Obama said. “There are still too many students attending classes in trailers. There are still too many people unable to find work. And there are still too many New Orleans folks who have not been able to come home. So while an incredible amount of progress has been made, on this fifth anniversary, 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. Until New Orleans is all the way back.”

He took credit for freeing infrastructure projects caught up in agency turf wars and “byzantine rules.” He said his administration has also concentrated on reducing the number of families still in emergency housing and resolved a dispute that had tied up funding to replace Charity Hospital in New Orleans.

The rebuilding presented an opportunity to overhaul New Orleans’ schools, which had struggled before the storm, Obama said. “In the years since the storm, a lot of public schools opened themselves up to innovation and reform,” he said. “As a result, we’re actually seeing rising achievement, and New Orleans is becoming a model for the nation.”

To protect the city from future storms, a fortified levee system is under construction. “As I pledged as a candidate, we’re going to finish this system by next year, so that this city is protected against a 100-year storm,” Obama said. “We should not be playing Russian roulette every hurricane season.”

The president also used his speech to talk about the cleanup from the BP oil spill this year in the Gulf of Mexico. An explosion in April on a BP drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana led to an oil leak that lasted until July, when the well was successfully capped. Efforts to permanently seal the well continue.

“From the start, I promised you two things,” Obama said. “One is that we would see to it that the leak was stopped. And it has been. But the second promise I made was that we would stick with our efforts, and stay on BP, until the damage to the Gulf and to the lives of the people in this region was reversed. And this, too, is a promise that we will keep.”

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