Obama: The Story of New Orleans Is 'The Story of America'

Obama_New_Orleans
President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the Andrew P. Sanchez Community Center in Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans on August 27. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The story of New Orleans's recovery from Hurricane Katrina is the "story of America," President Barack Obama said in a speech Thursday afternoon marking the storm's 10th anniversary.

In an hour long address delivered after meeting with residents in the city's Lower 9th Ward, which suffered extensive damage during the hurricane, Obama compared the city's recovery to America's recovery from the Great Recession. The U.S. economy has added 13 million jobs over more than five years, Obama said, which he called "the biggest recovery since the Great Depression."

The storm made landfall on August 25, 2005, causing unprecedented destruction along the Gulf Coast and killing more than 1,800. In Katrina's aftermath, the federal government was criticized for its slow response. "What started out as a natural disaster became a man-made disaster, a failure of government to look out for its own citizens," Obama said.

But the president also touted the city's recovery effort. "If Katrina was initially an example of what happens when government fails, the recovery has been an example of what happens when government works together," he said.

Obama used the speech to urge members of Congress not to "hold the economy hostage over their own ideological demands" and to "protect our momentum" by agreeing on a budget in time for the start of the 2016 fiscal year, which begins on September 30. Obama vowed to veto "mindless" austerity measures and "shortsighted" sequester cuts. He also warned members of Congress against leaving the federal government unfunded, as happened for 16 days in 2013 while legislators argued over funding Obamacare. (A similar shutdown was narrowly avoided in 2014.) "Pass a budget, prevent a shutdown, don't wait 'til the last minute," Obama said. "Eventually we're going to do it anyway, so let's just do it without too much drama," he added.

The president also praised specific parts of the Katrina recovery program, saying that after the storm, the city became a "laboratory for urban innovation." Before Katrina, New Orleans's high school graduation rate was 54 percent, the worst in the state. Ten years later, the graduation rate in the city is 73 percent, Obama said, among the highest recorded.

He also touted the city's successful campaign to end homelessness among war veterans. In 2015, New Orleans became the first city in the U.S. to find homes for all of its homeless veterans. Homeless advocates around the country hailed the city as a model.

Despite his praise on Thursday, the president acknowledged that problems remain in New Orleans. "Almost 40 percent of children still live in poverty in this city," he said, and "a typical black household earns half the income of a white household."

Earlier in the day, Obama also made remarks while touring the Faubourg Lafitte neighborhood project, part of the Tremé neighborhood that was heavily damaged by the storm. While acknowledging the neighborhoods struggle with poverty and lack of resources, Obama said the strides the area has made "10 years after a terrible, epic disaster" are "an indication of the kind of spirit that we have in this city."

Obama: The Story of New Orleans Is 'The Story of America' | U.S.