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Obama marks rebirth of New Orleans, 10 years after Katrina




US President Barack Obama visited New Orleans Thursday to praise its people’s “extraordinary resilience,” 10 years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the “Big Easy” and shattered Americans’ confidence in government.

Obama traveled to Louisiana to mark the rebirth of a city eulogized by Tennessee Williams as the “last frontier of Bohemia,” but which in August 2005 became a nightmare of death and looting.

Welcoming Obama at Armstrong International Airport was Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican presidential candidate, Senator Bill Cassidy and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

He will visit the Lower Ninth Ward, a poor neighborhood which Katrina made as synonymous with New Orleans as Dixieland jazz or Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street.

“This new community center stands as a symbol of the extraordinary resilience of this city and its people,” Obama is expected to say according to excerpts released by the White House.

“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.”

More than 1,800 people were killed and one million more displaced when Katrina barreled in from the Gulf of Mexico, destroying levees and submerging 80 percent of the city in effluent-tainted storm water.

Americans watched shocked as stranded survivors waited day after day on rooftops for government help that was painfully slow to come.

Obama will look to contrast that troubled initial response with more successful efforts to resurrect New Orleans: An allegory of what happens when government gets it wrong, and what happens when government gets it right.

“What started out as a natural disaster became a manmade one –- a failure of government to look out for its own citizens,” he is expected to say.

The implicit contrast is between his administration’s efforts to get New Orleans back on its feet and George W. Bush’s initial vacillation.

The storm surge scarred the city, but also forged a high watermark of criticism of Bush’s administration.

A photograph of a concerned but detached president Bush viewing the damage from Air Force One has become emblematic of the politics of the crisis.

“I prided myself on my ability to make crisp and effective decisions,” Bush later wrote in his memoir.

“Yet in the days after Katrina, that didn’t happen. The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions. It was that I took too long to decide.”

– Plagued by inequality –

But Obama risks looking similarly out of touch if he too strongly talks up New Orleans’ recovery.

That message “would resonate more with the city’s white residents than with its black residents,” said Michael Henderson, of Louisiana State University.

According to a recent LSU poll, the vast majority of white people in the city believe Louisiana has mostly recovered from “the storm.”

Three in five black residents, however, say it has not.

Strong local support for Obama and his Democrats will prevent a backlash, even if his message “does not fully mesh with many residents’ own views or experiences,” said Henderson.

Obama is expected to echo words he spoke as a senator: “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.”

“Too many kids grew up surrounded by violent crime, cycling through substandard schools where few had a shot to break out of poverty.”

There are signs history may be repeated.

While the last decade has seen an influx of wealthy new residents to New Orleans, many complain that gentrification has left them by the wayside, transforming public schools into charter schools and pushing housing beyond reach.

Ten years on, like the rest of America, the gap between rich and poor — and often white and black — has only grown.

In New Orleans, that threatens to fray the unity and resolve that fueled the recovery.

“Even if it is in part a national phenomenon, it is not just a national phenomenon,” said Henderson.

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