NEW ORLEANS — As President Barack Obama toured the Treme neighborhood of this city on Thursday, admiring the neat rows of brightly painted houses on a street battered by Hurricane Katrina, a 92-year-old woman — a local icon — told him she was proud of all he had done.
Obama responded to the woman — Leah Chase, the former chef and owner of the city’s famed Dooky Chase’s Restaurant — by nodding in the direction of Mitch Landrieu, the Democratic mayor of New Orleans. The president suggested that more of the credit should go to him.
“I’m just trying to make sure we give Mitch an assist,” Obama said, sleeves rolled up under the bright summer sun as he marked the 10th anniversary of the catastrophic hurricane on the Gulf Coast, the costliest disaster in U.S. history.
Much has changed since the storm came, the levees broke and the iconic city of New Orleans plunged into calamity, including Obama’s view of what it takes for a community to rise from such a blow.
The first time he saw the devastation that Katrina thundered down on New Orleans, he was a presidential candidate hitting hard on the federal government’s responsibility to Americans in crisis. On Thursday, seven years into his presidency, Obama put heavy emphasis on the importance of cooperation among local, state and federal officials as well as collaboration with clergy leaders, not-for-profits and residents.
“Not long ago, our gathering here in the Lower 9th might have seemed unlikely,” Obama said to a crowd at a new community center built to replace one destroyed in the Lower 9th Ward, the neighborhood whose destruction grew to symbolize the devastation of the hurricane and the view that the city’s black residents had been left behind.
“But today, this new community center stands as a symbol of the extraordinary resilience of this city and its people, of the entire Gulf Coast, indeed, of the United States of America,” he said. “You are an example of what’s possible when, in the face of tragedy and hardship, good people come together to lend a hand, and to build a better future.”
To be sure, Obama echoed his concerns of 2008, recounting the story of Katrina partly as a failure of government to look out for its own citizens. But he framed it more as a systemic failure that left some communities more vulnerable to the storm and its aftermath.
At the time of the storm, 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.”
And while progress has been made, Obama and others acknowledged more work still lay ahead.
“This recovery is at halftime,” Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, D-La., told the crowd. “There is so much more left to be done.”
In the aftermath of the storm, much of the blame went to the U.S. government. President George W. Bush was castigated for the poor response of federal emergency officials and the shortcomings in the city’s levee infrastructure, built in part by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Katrina became shorthand for the failed ambitions of Bush’s domestic policy in the way the Iraq war did for his foreign policy.
But there was a surprisingly gentler attitude toward Bush in the delegation traveling with Obama on Thursday, a decade after the rap star Kanye West blamed the city’s struggles after the storm on the fact that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
Democratic political consultant Donna Brazile and writer Walter Isaacson, New Orleans natives who traveled with Obama on Air Force One, told reporters on the plane that they agreed Bush got a bad rap for the crisis response.
“I’m one of those individuals that believes that under President Bush’s leadership we got it right,” said Brazile, who is African-American. “It took awhile for the federal government to really figure out how to help us. And I think once the president made the decision that New Orleans would be rebuilt, despite some of the conversation on Capitol Hill that didn’t believe that the federal government should invest hundreds of billions of dollars into the recovery effort, the president made a commitment, and I think he kept his word.”
Brazile also praised former first lady Laura Bush for her commitment to rebuild the city’s libraries and predicted that George W. Bush would receive “a warm welcome” when he visited the city Friday.
She and Isaacson both noted the Bush-Clinton Katrina fund and its role in raising private money.
Obama’s tone was different too. In February 2008, he referred to Bush as a “president who only saw the people from the window of an airplane instead of down here on the ground.”
“When President Bush came down to Jackson Square two weeks after the storm,” he went on, “the setting was spectacular and his promises soaring. ... But over two years later, those words have been caught in a tangle of half-measures, half-hearted leadership and red tape.”
In the years since then, Obama has himself struggled to move federal agencies in the direction he wants, though he heaped praise on his director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “I love me some Craig Fugate,” Obama said in his remarks.
Still, unable to inspire Congress to tackle big problems in the way he’d like, Obama relies more and more on convening community stakeholders and promoting public-private partnerships to get things done.
On Thursday, as he toured neighborhoods hard hit by the storm, Obama emphasized the possibilities created when residents and city and corporate leaders work together, and he talked about the lessons of the last decade.
“Perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned from Katrina,” he said, “is making sure that there is trust and effective communication between citizens, government and civil society.”