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Obama sees message of resilience on streets of New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS — The despair uncorked by Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago quickly became a symbol of so much that was wrong with America: racial and economic inequality, government inaction in the face of enormous social problems and a deep sense of vulnerability and lack of preparedness for the next disaster.

That dark moment helped propel Barack Obama into the White House. On Thursday, Obama returned to New Orleans to mark the 10th anniversary of Katrina at a newly built community center in the lower Ninth Ward and to tout the city as an example of American resilience, not just in the facing of Katrina, but crisis in general.

"Americans like you — the people of New Orleans . . . you're what recovery has been all about. You're why I'm confident that we can recover from crisis and start to move forward," he said. "You're the reason 13 million new jobs have been created. You're the reason the unemployment rate fell from 10 percent to 5.3. You're the reason that layoffs are near an all-time low."

But Obama also recalled some of the ills exposed by Katrina: "What the storm revealed was another tragedy — one that had been brewing for decades," he said. "New Orleans had long been plagued by structural inequality that left too many people, especially poor people of color, without good jobs or affordable health care or decent housing."

For the president, the city's recovery is a symbol of what engaged government can accomplish, and it's a point of personal pride. "Across the board, I've made the recovery and rebuilding of the Gulf Coast a priority," he said. "I made promises when I was a senator that I'd help. And I've kept those promises."

But the commemorations come at a time when many of the problems of race and poverty that Katrina exposed seem as endemic now as they were then.

"We're at halftime," said National Urban League president Marc Morial, the city's former mayor, in an interview this week. "No one goes in at halftime and pops a champagne cork. No one goes in at halftime and wins a trophy."

Obama said the New Orleans recovery has been important to him and his administration and that it has become a model for disaster relief nationwide. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has doubled the number of vouchers available in the city, providing assistance for more than 17,000 households, and it has fully restored 98 percent of the public housing units damaged on the Gulf Coast a decade ago.

The Education Department has invested more than $100 million in Louisiana since 2009, while the administration greenlighted roughly $500 million in funding to rebuild New Orleans's Charity Hospital and spent almost $1 billion to build a new Veterans Affairs Medical Center nearby.

"I can't remember a time where I reached out to the administration on something and they didn't eventually find a way to say, 'Yes,' " said former Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who helped spearhead the fight for federal recovery funding.

While New Orleans has made several concrete gains, including a strengthened education system and a revitalized business sector, it still confronts a persistent series of problems — some of them new, others decades old — including high illiteracy and unemployment rates as well as a battered transportation system. The child poverty rate is 39 percent, 17 percentage points above the national average and the same level it was a decade ago.

There has been a 55 percent drop in available transit service, and Tulane University estimates there are 26,000 young people aged 16 to 24 in the city who are neither in school nor employed.

Days after Katrina hit, when he was still serving as a senator, Obama went to Houston with former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush to visit survivors of the storm. He publicly rejected the notion that George W. Bush's administration had ignored New Orleans' residents because they were black.

Obama suggested that incompetence, not racism, was the chief culprit.

"The ineptitude was colorblind," Obama said.

On Thursday, Obama walked down the streets of Tremé, one of the country's oldest black neighborhoods, in rolled shirtsleeves as a small crowd cheered.

As close as the president's political bond is with New Orleans, the relationship has not always been trouble free. In a 2007 visit to the legendary Creole restaurant Dooky Chase, the future president's decision to add hot sauce to the house gumbo before tasting it prompted a sharp rebuke from the restaurant's owner, Leah Chase.

Chase, now 92, was on hand to welcome the president Thursday as he walked through Tremé.

"He's done a good job," she told reporters. "He knew it was going to be a rough road. He handled it. And that's all you have to do: handle what's handed to you."