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Obama to Highlight Post-Katrina Progress in New Orleans

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

“What started out as a natural disaster became a manmade one — a failure of government to look out for its own citizens.”  

That’s how President Barack Obama plans to sum up the tragedy that took place when Hurricane Katrina hit along the Gulf Coast a decade ago, devastation that became part of the public consciousness, especially in New Orleans where he will be speaking.  

In the aftermath of the storm, people on the ground did the best they could as failure at all levels of government cost lives.  

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., was far from serving in Congress.  

A practicing physician at Louisiana State University, Cassidy was featured in a PBS “NewsHour” report for running a “surge” hospital in Baton Rouge, La., built out of an abandoned K-Mart.  

“When we came in, there was grease all over the floor, dust, 90 percent of these lights were out. There was no electricity, no phone lines. No one had checked the plumbing and we couldn’t even open all the doors. 36 to 48 hours after we began the process, we were ready to begin receiving patients,” Cassidy said in September 2005 .  

According to Cassidy’s office, the freshman senator plans to greet Obama at the Louis Armstrong International Airport and will attend events with the president later in the day.  

“On a personal level — as I reflect on my experience and that of many others who provided medical services to evacuees — I thank the first responders and those who came after to help those they did not know, but considered their neighbors. Our state is stronger today than it was 10 years ago,” Cassidy said. “Our people are resilient, our schools are improved, and New Orleans’ tourism industry continues to improve.”  

Who deserves blame for what went wrong and the extent of the progress are both in the eye of the beholder, as demonstrated the disparate views expressed by Democratic Rep. Cedric L. Richmond and Republican House Majority Whip Steve Scalise in interviews with CQ Roll Call ahead of the Hurricane Katrina commemorations.  

“If we’re going to do anything for Katrina 10, it should be focusing on what still needs to be done, instead of pat ourselves on the back for the work that we’ve done. We’ve done some good work, but I think while we have the nation’s attention we should focus on these people, these neighborhoods that still need to be improved,” Richmond said. “I mean, we’re the No. 1 city, I guess, for entrepreneurs and people to come to, but that’s not something we should be celebrating until we get all the people who lived there the ability to come back home, and we still have far too many people who want to be home who are not home.”  

As part of Katrina 10, the city of New Orleans is holding events throughout the week to remember the tragedy and to highlight progress. Thursday’s key discussions include one about lessons for building up resiliency in communities and the story of the rebuilding of the Superdome.  

The damaged indoor stadium that’s the home of the New Orleans Saints became a heartbreaking symbol of the failures of the storm response.  

According to excerpts provided by a White House official, Obama also intends to highlight the resiliency of Louisiana, and particularly in the Lower Ninth Ward, where Obama is set to speak Thursday afternoon at a local multi-service center after meeting with local residents..  

“We acknowledge this loss, this pain, not to harp on what happened — but to memorialize it. We do this not in order to dwell in the past, but in order to keep moving forward. Because this is a city that slowly, unmistakably, together, is moving forward. Because the project of rebuilding here wasn’t simply to restore the city as it had been,” Obama will say. “It was to build a city as it should be — a city where everyone, no matter who they are or what they look like or how much money they’ve got — has an opportunity to make it.”  

The White House is touting progress made by the Obama administration on the Katrina recovery, as well as improvements in disaster preparedness since Katrina, where the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Gorge W. Bush drew widespread ridicule.  

Emma Dumain contributed to this report.

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