The following is the full text of President Obama's remarks made at Xavier University Sunday.
It’s great to be back in New Orleans, and an honor to be back at Xavier University. I’m inspired to spend time with folks who have demonstrated what it means to persevere in the face of tragedy – and rebuild in the face of ruin. Thank you, Jade, for your introduction – and congratulations on being crowned Miss Xavier.
As Jade said, she was a junior at Ben Franklin High School five years ago when the storm came. After Katrina, Ben Franklin High was terribly damaged by wind and water. Millions of dollars were needed to rebuild the school. Many feared it would take years to reopen – if it could reopen at all. But then something remarkable happened. Parents and teachers, students and volunteers got to work making repairs. Donations came in from across New Orleans and around the world. And soon, silent, darkened corridors were bright and filled with the sounds of young men and women, including Jade, heading to class again. Jade then committed to Xavier, a University that likewise refused to succumb to despair. So Jade, like so many students here, embodies hope – and that sense of hope in difficult times is what I came to talk about today.
It has been five years since Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. There is no need to dwell on what you experienced and what the world witnessed: water pouring through broken levees; mothers holding their children above the waterline; people stranded on rooftops begging for help; bodies lying in the streets of a great American city. It was a natural disaster but also a manmade catastrophe; a shameful breakdown in government that left countless men, women, and children abandoned and alone. Shortly after the storm, I came down to Houston to spend time with some of the folks who took shelter there. I’ll never forget what one woman told me. “We had nothing before the hurricane,” she said. “Now we got less than nothing.”
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. It was not hard to imagine a day when we’d tell our children of a once vibrant and wonderful city laid low by indifference and neglect. But that is not what happened. It’s not what happened at Ben Franklin. It’s not what happened at Xavier. And that’s not what happened across New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. It is true that this city has become a symbol. But it’s a symbol of resilience, of community, of the fundamental responsibility we have for one another.
We see that at Xavier. Less than a month after the storm struck, amidst debris and flood-damaged buildings, President Francis promised that this university would reopen in a matter of months. Some said he was crazy. But they didn’t count on what would happen when one force of nature met another. By January – four months later – class was in session. Less than a year after the storm, I had the privilege of delivering a commencement address to the largest graduating class in Xavier’s history.
We see that in the efforts of Joycelyn Heintz, who is here today. Katrina left her house under 14 feet of water. But after volunteers helped her rebuild, she joined AmeriCorps to serve the community herself – part of a wave of AmeriCorps members who have been critical to the rebirth of this city and the rebuilding of this region. Today, she manages a local center for mental health and wellness.
We see the symbol that this city has become in the St. Bernard Project, whose co-founder Liz McCartney is with us. This endeavor has drawn volunteers from across the country to rebuild hundreds of homes throughout St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward.
I saw the sense of purpose people felt after the storm when I visited Musicians’ Village in the Ninth Ward back in 2006. Volunteers were not only constructing houses; they were coming to together to preserve the culture of music and art that is part of the soul of this city – and the soul of this country. Today, more than 70 homes are complete, and construction is underway on the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music.
We see the dedication to the community in the efforts of Xavier graduate Dr. Regina Benjamin, who mortgaged her home and maxed out her credit cards so she could reopen her Bayou la Batre clinic to care for victims of the storm – and who is now our nation’s Surgeon General.
And we see that resilience – that hope – exemplified by students at Carver High School. They’ve helped raise more than a million dollars to build a new community track and football field – their “Field of Dreams” – for the Ninth Ward.
Because of you – all the advocates and organizers here today, folks who are leading the way toward a better future for this city with innovative approaches to fight poverty, improve health care, reduce crime, and create opportunities for young people – because of you, New Orleans is coming back.
Five years ago, many questioned whether people could ever return to this city. Today, New Orleans is one of the fastest growing cities in America, with a big surge in new small businesses. Five years ago, the Saints had to play every game on the road because of the damage to the Superdome. Well, two weeks ago, we welcomed the Saints to the White House as Super Bowl champions. We marked the occasion with a 30-foot po’boy made with shrimp and oysters from the Gulf. There were no leftovers.
Of course, I don’t have to tell you that there are still too many vacant and overgrown lots. 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 Orleanians 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.
When I took office, I directed my cabinet to redouble our efforts, to put an end to the turf wars between agencies, to cut the red tape and the bureaucracy. I wanted to make sure that the federal government was a partner – instead of an obstacle – to the recovery of the Gulf Coast. And members of my cabinet – including my EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, who grew up in Pontchartrain Park – have come down here dozens of times. This wasn’t just to make appearances – to just be in a few photos putting up dry wall. This was so that they could listen, learn, and make real changes so that government was actually working for you.
For example, efforts to rebuild schools and hospitals, to repair damaged roads and bridges, and to get people back into their homes, were tied up for years in a tangle of disagreements and byzantine rules. So when I took office, working with Senator Mary Landrieu, we put in place a new way of resolving disputes, so that funds set aside for rebuilding efforts actually went toward rebuilding efforts. As a result, more than 170 projects are getting underway, including work on firehouses, police stations, roads, sewer systems, health clinics, libraries, and universities.
We’re tackling the corruption and inefficiency that has long plagued the New Orleans Housing Authority. We’re helping homeowners rebuild and making it easier for renters to find affordable options. And we’re helping people to move out of temporary homes. When I took office, more than three years after the storm, tens of thousands of families were still stuck in disaster housing – with many living in small trailers provided by FEMA. We were spending huge sums of money on temporary shelter when we knew it would be better for families, and less costly for taxpayers, to help people get into affordable, stable, and more permanent housing. So we’ve helped make it possible for people to find those homes, dramatically reducing the number of families in emergency housing.
On the health care front, as a candidate for President, I pledged to make sure we were helping New Orleans recruit doctors and nurses, and rebuild medical facilities – including a new veterans hospital. Well, we’ve resolved a long-standing dispute – one that tied up hundreds of millions of dollars – to fund the replacement for Charity Hospital. And in June, Veterans Secretary Ric Shinseki came to New Orleans for the groundbreaking of that new VA hospital.
In education, we’ve made strides as well. As you know, schools in New Orleans were falling behind long before Katrina. But in the years since the storm, a lot of public schools opened themselves up to innovation and reform. As a result, we’re actually seeing rising achievement and New Orleans is fast becoming a model for the nation. This is yet another sign that you’re not only rebuilding; you’re rebuilding stronger than before. Just this Friday, my administration announced a final agreement on $1. 8 billion dollars for Orleans Parish schools – money that had been locked up for years – so folks here could determine how best to restore the school system.
And in a city that has known too much violence and too much despair – that has seen too many young people lost to drugs and criminal activity – we’ve got a Department of Justice committed to working with New Orleans to fight the scourge of violent crime, to weed out corruption in the police force, and to ensure the criminal justice system works for everyone here. And I want to thank Mitch Landrieu, your new mayor, for his commitment to that partnership.
Even as we continue our recovery efforts, we’re also focusing on preparing for future threats – so that there is never another disaster like Katrina ever again. The largest civil works project in American history is underway to build a fortified levee system. And 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. Because we should not be playing Russian roulette every Hurricane season. We’re also working to restore protective wetlands and natural barriers that were not only damaged by Katrina but had been rapidly disappearing for decades.
In Washington, we are restoring competence and accountability. I’m proud that my FEMA Director, Craig Fugate, has 25 years of experience in disaster management in Florida, a state that has known its share of hurricanes. We’ve put together a group led by Secretary Donovan and Secretary Napolitano to look at disaster recovery across the country. We’re improving coordination on the ground, modernizing emergency communications, and helping families plan for a crisis. And we’re putting in place reforms so that never again in America is someone left behind in a disaster because they’re living with a disability or they’re elderly or infirmed.
Finally, even as you’ve been buffeted by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, as well as the broader recession that has devastated communities across the country, in recent months the Gulf Coast has seen new hardship as a result of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. And just as we have sought to ensure that we are doing what it takes to recover from Katrina, my administration has worked hard to match our efforts on the spill to what you need on the ground.
From the start, I promised you two things. 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 we will keep.
That is why we rapidly launched the largest response to an environmental disaster in American history. This has included 47,000 people on the ground and 5,700 vessels on the water to contain and clean up the oil. When I heard that BP was not moving fast enough on claims, we told BP to set aside $20 billion in a fund – managed by an independent third party – to help all those whose lives have been turned upside down by the spill. And we will continue to rely on sound science – carefully monitoring waters and coastlines as well as the health of people along the Gulf – to deal with any long-term effects of the oil spill. 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.
So that is how we are helping this city, this state, and this region to recover from the worst natural disaster in our nation’s history. We are cutting through the tangle of red tape that has impeded rebuilding efforts for years. We are making government work better and smarter – in coordination with one of the most expansive non-profit efforts in American history. And we are helping state and local leaders to address serious problems that had been neglected for decades – problems that existed long before storm came, and have continued after the waters receded – from the levee system to the justice system, from the health care system to the education system.
Together, we are helping to make New Orleans a place that stands for what we can do in America – not just for what we can’t do. And ultimately, that must be the legacy of Katrina: not one of neglect, but of action; not one of indifference, but of empathy; not of abandonment, but of a community working together to meet shared challenges.
The truth is, there are some wounds that do not heal. There are some losses that cannot be repaid. And for many who lived through those harrowing days five years ago, there is a searing memory that time will not erase. But even amid so much tragedy, we saw the stirrings of a brighter day. We saw men and women risking their own safety to save strangers. We saw nurses staying behind to care for the sick and injured. We saw families coming home to clean up and rebuild – not just their own homes, but their neighbors’ as well. We saw music and Mardi Gras and the vibrancy of this town undiminished. And we have seen many return to their beloved city with a newfound sense of obligation to this community.
When I came here four years ago, one thing that I found striking was all the greenery that had begun to come back. I was reminded of a passage from the book of Job. “There is hope for a tree if it be cut down that it will sprout again, and that its tender branch will not cease.” The work ahead will not be easy. There will be setbacks. There will be challenges along the way. But today, thanks to you and the people of this great city, New Orleans is blossoming once more.