Obama tells people of New Orleans: You inspire me

2015-08-28 09:05
President Barack Obama walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, upon his return from a trip to New Orleans. (Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP)

President Barack Obama walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, upon his return from a trip to New Orleans. (Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP)

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New Orleans - President Barack Obama held out the people of New Orleans as an extraordinary example of renewal and resilience 10 years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, while visiting residents on tidy porch stoops and sampling the fried chicken at a corner restaurant.

Obama spoke on Thursday to hundreds of residents assembled at a bustling new community centre in an area of the Lower 9th Ward that was once under 5.2m of water

"There's something in you guys that is just irrepressible," he told the crowd. "The people of New Orleans didn't just inspire me, you inspired all of America."

Obama held out the city's comeback as a metaphor for what's happening all across a nation that has moved from economic crisis to higher ground.

"Look at what's happened here," he declared, speaking of a transformed American city that was once "dark and underwater."

Still, Obama acknowledged that much remains to be done. And after walking door to door in the historic Treme section of a city reborn from tragedy, he cautioned that "just because the housing is nice doesn't mean our job is done."

Areas of the city still suffer from high poverty, he said, and young people still take the wrong path.

There is more to be done to confront "structural inequities that existed long before the storm happened," he added.

In his remarks at the community centre, Obama blended the same themes of resilience and renewal that he drew from encounters with the sturdy residents he met along Magic Street and at other locations.

Hardship

Leah Chase, the 92-year-old proprietor of Dooky Chase's Restaurant, was one of those to chat with Obama. She pronounced herself a fan of the man, saying he'd handled "a rough road".

Chase, who's known as the "Queen of Creole Cuisine" said, "That's all you have to do: handle what's handed to you," voicing what could be a credo for the city.

Obama was clearly energised by his visits, at one point breaking into a song from The Jeffersons sitcom after meeting a young woman who calls herself "Ouisie". He stopped for fried chicken at Willie Mae's Scotch House, and pronounced the resulting grease stain on his suit a good indication that he'd enjoyed his stay in the city.

He held out the community centre as "an example of what is possible when, in the face of tragedy and in the face of hardship, good people come together to lend a hand and, brick by brick, block by block, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, you build a better future."

"And that more than any other reason is why I've come back here today," he said.

Obama was a new US senator when Katrina's powerful winds and driving rain bore down on Louisiana on August 29 2005. The storm caused major damage to the Gulf Coast from Texas to central Florida while powering a storm surge that breached the system of levees meant to protect New Orleans from flooding.

Nearly 2 000 people died, most in New Orleans. Video of residents seeking refuge on rooftops, inside the Superdome and at the convention centre dominated news coverage as Katrina came to symbolize government failure at every level.

In his speech, Obama said Katrina helped expose inequalities that long plagued New Orleans and left too many people, especially minorities, without good jobs, affordable health care or decent housing and too many kids growing up in the midst of violent crime and attending inefficient schools.

The setting of his address at the community centre spoke to the stark contrasts that remain. It sits near nicely renovated homes but also next to a boarded-up wooden house.

Colette Pichon Battle, executive director of Gulf Coast Centre for Law & Policy, cautioned against slapping too happy a face on New Orleans, saying "rebuilding since the storm favours privileged private enterprise and this illusion of recovery is not progress".

Read more on:    barack obama  |  us  |  hurricane katrina

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