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President Obama Speaks at Xavier University

Aired August 29, 2010 - 14:50   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Meantime, I want to take you straight to New Orleans right now. We've been mentioning to you Xavier University is the place where the President of the United States is speaking to help commemorate this five-year-mark for the anniversary of Katrina, devastating the entire U.S. Gulf Coast, particularly as it pertains to Louisiana and Mississippi.

There you see - and we heard our Dan Lothian earlier, among those that have a lucky ticket to be inside Xavier University, of course, some dignitaries, local as well as state officials and a number of students who are there. And members of the general public who are able to on a first come, first served basis get tickets in order to fill that room there.

The president, we understand, will be speaking, commemorating and offering a continued commitment that this government will make for the U.S. Gulf Coast residents, all of those affected by Hurricane Katrina five years ago.

He, of course, along with the First Lady there, Michelle Obama. And we saw earlier pictures when they arrived. They're in New Orleans at the airport that his oldest daughter was also there in attendance.

Let's listen in to the president.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Hello, everybody. Oh, it is - it is good to be back. It is good to be back and I'm glad. And due to popular demand, I decide to bring the First Lady down here.

We have just an extraordinary number of dedicated public servants who are here. If you will be patient with me, I want to make sure that all of them are acknowledged.

First of all, you've got the governor of the Great State of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal is here. We have the outstanding Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu. We have the better-looking and younger Senator from Louisiana, Mary Landrieu. I believe that Senator David Vitter is here? David? Right here. We have - hold on a second now. We've got Congressman Joe Cao is here. Congressman Charlie Melancon is here. Congressman Steve Scalise is here.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who has been working tirelessly down here in Louisiana, Shaun Donovan. We've got our EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson, here. Home girl. Administrator of FEMA, Craig Fugate, is here. The person who is heading up our community service efforts all across the country, Patrick Corvington, is here. Louisiana's own Regina Benjamin, the Surgeon General. A Xavier grad, I might add.

We are - we are very proud to have all of these terrific public servants here. It is wonderful to be back in New Orleans. And it is a great honor - it is a great honor - you can see me now? OK. It is a great honor to be back at Xavier University. And I - it's just inspiring to spend time with people who've demonstrated what it means to persevere in the face of tragedy, to rebuild in the face of ruin.

I'm grateful to Jade for her introduction - and congratulate you on being crowned Ms. Xavier. I - I hope everybody heard during the introduction. She was a junior at Ben Franklin High School five years ago when the storm came. And 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 be reopened at all.

But something remarkable happened. Parents, teachers, students, volunteers, they all got to work making repairs. And donations came in from across New Orleans and around the world. And soon those silent and darkened corridors, they were bright and they were filled with the sounds of young men and women, including Jade, who were going back to class. And then jade committed to Xavier, a university that likewise refused to succumb to despair. So Jade, like so many students here at this university, embody hope, a sense of hope in difficult times. That's what I came to talk about today.

It's been five years since Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. There's no need to dwell on what you experienced and what the world witnessed. We all remember it keenly. Water pouring through broken levees, mothers holding their children above the water line, people stranded on rooftops, begging for help, and bodies lying in the streets of a great American city.

It was a natural disaster, but also a man-made catastrophe. A shameful breakdown in government that left countless men and women and children abandoned and alone. And shortly after the storm, I came down to Houston to spend time with some of the folks who had taken shelter there. And I'll never forget what one woman told me. She said, "We had nothing before the hurricane, and now we've 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 that a once vibrant, wonderful city had been laid low by indifference and neglect.

But that's not what happened. It's not what happened at Ben Franklin, it's not what happened here at Xavier, it's not what happened across New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast. Instead this city has become a symbol of resilience and of community and of the fundamental responsibility that we have to one another. We see that here 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. Some said it couldn't happen. But they didn't count on what happens when one force of nature meets another. And 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.

That is a symbol of what New Orleans is all about. We see New Orleans in the efforts of Joycelyn Heintz, who's here today. Katrina left her house 14 feet under water. But after volunteers helped her rebuild, she joined AmeriCorps to serve the community herself - part of a wave of AmeriCorps members who've been critical to the rebirth of the city and the rebuilding of this region. So 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. Its founder, Liz Mccartney, is with us. This - this endeavor has drawn volunteers from across the country to rebuild hundreds of homes throughout St. Bernard parish and the Lower Ninth Ward.

I've seen 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 together to preserve the culture of music and art. That's part of the soul of this city and the soul of this country. And today more than 70 homes are complete, and construction is underway on Ellis Marcelis Center for Music.

We see - we see the dedication to the community in the efforts of Xavier grad, Dr. Regina Benjamin, who mortgaged her home, maxed out her credit cards so she could reopen her Bayou - her Bayou La Batre Clinic to care for victims of the storm and who is now our nation's Surgeon General.

We see resilience and hope exemplified by students of Carver High School who have helped to raise more than a million dollars to build a new community track and football field - their "Field of Dreams" for the Ninth Ward. So because of all of you, New Orleans is coming back.


I just came from Parkway Bakery in Tampa. And five years ago the storm nearly destroyed that neighborhood institution. I saw the pictures. Now they're open, business is booming and that's some good eating. I had the Shrimp Poor Boy.


And some of the gumbo but I skipped the bread pudding because I thought I might fall asleep while I was speaking.

(LAUGHING) But I got it saved for later. Five years ago many questions whether people could ever return to this city. Today, New Orleans is one of the fastest cities in America with a big new surge in small business.

Five years ago the Saints had to play every game on the road because of the damage to the Superdome. Two weeks ago welcomed the Saints to the White House as Super bowl Champions.


There was also food associated with that. We marked the occasion with a 30 foot Poor Boy made with shrimps and oysters from the Gulf.


And you'll be pleased to know there were no left overs. Now 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 and trailers. There are still too many people unable to find work and there are still too many New Orleans folks who haven't been able to come home.

So while an incredible about 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. Until New Orleans is all the way back. All the way.


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 cut the beau racy. I wanted to make sure that the federal government was a partner not an obstacle to recover here in the Gulf Coast.

And members of my cabinet, including EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson who grew up in (INAUDIBLE) Park. They've come down here dozens of times. Sean Donovan come down here dozens of times. This not just to make appearances, it's not just to get photo ops.

They came down here to listen and to learn and make real the changes that were necessary so the government was actually working for you. So for example efforts to rebuild schools and hospitals to repair damaged roads and bridges to get people back to their homes.

They were tied up for years in a tangle of disagreements, visiting rules. So when I took office working with your outstanding delegation particularly Senator Mary Landrieu we put in place a new way of resolving disputes.


We put in place a new way of resolving disputes so that funds set aside for rebuilding efforts actually went toward rebuilding efforts. And as a result more than 170 projects are getting underway. Work on fire houses and police stations and roads and sewer systems and health clinics and libraries and universities.

We're tackling the corruption and inefficiency that has long plagued the New Orleans housing authority. We're helping home owners rebuild and making it easier for renters to find affordable options. And we're helping people to move out of temporary homes.

You know when I took office more than three years after the storm tens of thousands of families were still stuck in disaster houses. Many still living in small trailers that have been provided by FEMA. We were spending huge sums of money on temporary shelters when we knew it would be better for families and less costly for taxpayers to help people get into affordable stable and more permanent houses.

So we've helped make it possible for people to find those homes and we dramatically reduced the number of families in emergency houses. On the healthcare 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...


...we have resolved a long standing dispute. On that had tied up hundreds and millions of dollars to fund the replacement for charity hospital. And in June veteran - Veteran Secretary Eric Shinseki came to New Orleans for the grown breaking of that new VA Hospital.

In education we made strides as well. As you know schools in New Orleans were falling behind long before Katrina. But in the year since the storm a lot of public schools open themselves up to innovation and the reform. And as a result we're actually seeing rising achievement and New Orleans is becoming a model of innovation for the nation.

This is yet another sign that you're not just rebuilding you're rebuilding stronger than before. Just this Friday my administration announced final agreement on $1.8 billion for Orleans Parish Schools.


This is money that has been locked up for years but now it's freed up so folks here can determine best how to restore the school system. And a city that's known too much violence, that seen too many young people lost to drugs and criminal activity. We've got a Justice Department that's committed to working with New Orleans to fight and discourage of violent crime and to weed out corruption in the police force and ensure the criminal justice system works for everyone in this city.


And I want everybody to hear it to know and to hear me thank Mitch Landrieu your new Major for his commitment to that partnership.

(APPLAUSE) Now even as we continue our recovery efforts we're also focusing on preparing for future threats so that there's never another disaster like Katrina. The largest civil works project in American history is underway to build a fortified levy system.

And as a - just as I pledge as a candidate we're going to finish this system by next year so this city is protected against a 100 year storm. We should not be playing Russian roulette every hurricane season.


And we're also working to restore protective wetlands and natural barriers. That was not only damaged by Katrina...


...that was not just damaged by Katrina but has been rapidly disappearing for decades. In Washington we are restoring competence and accountability. I am proud that my FEMA Director Gregg Fugate has 25 years of experience in disaster management in Florida.


Came from Florida a state that has known its share of hurricanes. We put together a group led by Secretary Donovan and Secretary Napolitano to look the disaster recovery across the country. We're improving coordination on the ground modernizing emergency communication. Helping families plan for a crisis.

We're putting in place reforms so that never again in America is somebody left behind in a disaster because they're living with a disability or because they're elderly or because they're (INAUDIBLE). That will not happen again.


Finally, even as you've been buffeted by Katrina and Rita even as you've been impacted by the broader recession that's devastated communities across the country. In recent months the Gulf Coast has seen new hardship as a result of the BP Deep-water Horizon Oil Spill.

Just as we sought to ensure that we're 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. We've been in close consultation with your Governor, your Mayors your parish presence, your local government officials.

And from the start I promised you two things, one is that we would see to it that the leak will stop and it has been. The second promise I made is that we would stick with our efforts and stay on BP until the damage to Gulf and to the lives to the people in this region was reversed.

And this too is a promise that we will keep. We are not going to forget, were going to stay on it until this area is fully recovered. (APPLAUSE)

That's why we rapidly launched the largest response to an environmental disaster in American history. Forty-seven Thousand people on the ground, 5700 vessels on the water to contain and clean up the oil

When BP was not moving faster enough on claims we told BP to set outside $20 billion in a fund managed by an independent third party to help all those whose lives have been turn upside down by the storm. And we will continue to rely on sound science carefully monitoring, waters and coastlines as well as the help from the people on 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, until the environment is restored, until polluters are held accountable, until communities are made whole and until this region is all the way back on its feet.


That's how we're helping this city and this state and this region. To recover from the worst natural disaster in our nation's history. We're cutting through the red tape that has impeded rebuilding efforts for years. We're making government work better and smarter in coordination with one of the most expansive non-profit efforts in American history.

We're helping state and local leaders to address serious problems that had been neglected for decades. The problems that existed before the storm came that have continued to add to the waters receding. From the levy system to the justice system, from the healthcare system the education system.

And 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. 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 have not yet healed and there are some losses that can't be repaid. And for many who lived through those (INAUDIBLE) five years ago there's searing memories, that time may not rest.

But even amidst so much tragedy we saw stirrings of a brighter day. Five years ago, we saw men and women risking their own safety to save strangers. We saw nurses staying behind to care for the sick and the injured.

We saw families coming up to clean up and rebuild, not just their own home but their neighbors' homes as well. And we saw music and Mardi Gras and the vibrancy the fun of this town undiminished. We've seen many return to their beloved city with a new found since of appreciation and obligation to this community.

When I came here four years ago one thing I found striking was all the greenery that have begun to come back. And I was reminded of a passage from the book of Joseph. "There is hope for a tree if it be cut down then it will sprout again and at its tender branch will not cease."

The work ahead will not be easy and there will setbacks. There will be challenges along the way. But thanks to you. Thanks to the great people of this great city New Orleans is blossoming again.

Thank you everybody, God Bless You and God Bless the United States of America.


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN, ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: President Barack Obama marking his fifth anniversary or Hurricane Katrina. He's in New Orleans to renew the administration's commitment to help make improvements in infrastructure the school systems and even in safety.

He also said that his administration will match efforts as it pertains to the BP oil disaster in clean-up and in recovery. We'll have more on the president's visit to New Orleans at Xavier University there at the top of hour.

Now time for "YOUR MONEY" already in progress.