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Decade After Hurricane Katrina, Obama Celebrates New Orleans' Resilience


On this day 10 years ago, hurricane Katrina was gaining strength. Two days later, the city of New Orleans would be devastated. Across the Gulf Coast, 1,800 people died, and a million were displaced. President Obama travelled to the city today to meet with residents who have rebuilt, including young people who went through the storm. NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now from New Orleans. Hey there, Debbie.


CORNISH: So President Obama made his remarks today in the Lower Ninth Ward, this neighborhood, obviously, where a lot of lives were lost. And much of it was washed away by floodwaters. What was his message?

ELLIOTT: Well, first of all, President Obama acknowledged that many here are still grieving. He appeared at a rebuilt community center here in the Lower Ninth Ward. And he said, I understand many of you sitting out here may have lost a loved one. But he said, you know, you're an inspiration to the rest of the country.


BARACK OBAMA: You are 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, neighborhood by neighborhood, you built a better future.

CORNISH: But Debbie, when you look around the Lower Ninth Ward, what are you seeing?

ELLIOTT: You know, it's been an uneven recovery here. This is still not back the way other parts of New Orleans have come back. Only about 36 percent of households here remain or have built back. You still see blighted homes, empty lots next to rebuilt homes. I spoke earlier this week with Ronald Lewis, who was born here and serves as sort of an advocate in the community. And he says, you know, the progress has been slow.

RONALD LEWIS: You know what? We are off of life support, but now we're learning how to walk.

ELLIOTT: We're off life support, he said, and now we have a good way to go before we're running again, before we're back to where we should be.

CORNISH: Before his speech, President Obama did get to visit some other neighborhoods. What did he see?

ELLIOTT: Well, he walked through a new mixed-income housing development that is now on the side of what was once a dilapidated housing project in the Treme neighborhood. Those projects were torn down after the storm, and now there are these colorful pastel houses and duplex that are on that property. And he remarked, as he toured a couple of the places, that just because the housing is nice doesn't mean our job is done. He said obviously there's still a lot of poverty in that neighborhood and that this community still needs resources.


OBAMA: An American city dark and underwater, and this was something that was supposed to never happen here - maybe someplace else, but not here, not in America.

CORNISH: And we just heard a clip from his speech actually referring to the country's responsibility, the government's role in what happened in terms of the levees. Is that correct?

ELLIOTT: Well, he didn't speak directly to the levees, but he spoke directly to this sense that the government somehow failed New Orleans. This was not supposed to happen in America, you heard him say. But he said the flood here acknowledged a deeper tragedy that had been growing for decades before the storm, that there were structural inequalities that needed to be dealt with. And during his speech, when a lady yelled out to him, we still need help, he said, that's OK; we're going to get to that. So there is still a sense here that more needs to happen.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott in New Orleans. Debbie, thank you.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.