Obama Marks Katrina Anniversary With NOLA Visit

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President Obama goes to New Orleans Sunday to mark the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. It was five years ago when the monster storm roared ashore in Louisiana and Mississippi and sent a 30-foot-high wall of water crashing into the coast. Host Liane Hansen talks with NPR's Mandalit del Barco.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

In New Orleans, they call this day K-plus-five, the fifth anniversary of when Hurricane Katrina came ashore. Winds, rain and a massive storm surge overwhelmed the city's flood protection systems. A torrent of water rushed into New Orleans and killed more than 1,400 people and displaced tens of thousands of others.

Today, the region pauses to remember. NPR's Mandalit del Barco joins us from New Orleans. And, Mandalit, tell us about some of the events planned for today.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: This morning, President Obama will be commemorating the anniversary by giving a speech at Xavier University, the same campus that was flooded when the levees broke during the hurricane. The buildings are back and school is in session. So, having the president speak there is quite symbolic.

And today, while there will be events in memory of those who died in the floodwaters, there will also second line parades and marches and healing ceremonies. And Mardi Gras Indians from across the city will be gathering to mark the day, too.

HANSEN: Wow. You were in New Orleans after Katrina and have returned several times since. How do you think the city's changed in your eyes in the last five years?

DEL BARCO: Well, many New Orleaneans are back home in their city. Their restaurants and businesses are open; the music is back. But many people never returned. You know, Liane, there's a new mayor; people are really excited about a new police superintendent, the levees have been rebuilt.

But what's really noticeable is that the rebuilding has been nonstop. You know, there are some neighborhoods that have recovered completely but others are still choked with abandoned houses that seem to be untouched since the floods. I took a drive down through the Lower Ninth Ward and where there were once houses, there's just swampy lots with tall weeds.

Even though some parts closer to the where the levees flooded in, there are now brand new homes built high off the ground, thanks to Brad Pitt and his crew.

HANSEN: What have residents been telling you this week?

DEL BARCO: A lot of people are still pretty traumatized by what they had to go through. Many people lost friends and family, and there are real survivors and heroes. I think about my friend Clarence who spent days on a rooftop waiting to get rescued, and a lot of people who had to go through the horror that was the Superdome, living in toxic FEMA trailers.

And I also think about people like Jason Lewis(ph), a lawyer in town who was supposed to be married on August 28th and instead had to evacuate with his fiance. He told me figures it will take at least another five years for the city to recover, but he doesn't think New Orleans will ever quite be the same.

Mr. JASON LEWIS (Lawyer): We're working on holding onto our culture, but five years and millions of dollars later, we have communities, like New Orleans East right now, that have just gotten a grocery store, that still don't have a hospital. The schools are subpar - painted over, flood-ravaged walls. And if you're in need of emergency care, then it is a parish away at times.

HANSEN: Mandalit, ever so briefly, of course, residents there are dealing with the effects of the BP oil spill. How are they coping?

DEL BARCO: Well, you know, shrimpers, oyster fisherman, boat captains, they were out of work for a long time. Some of them have been temporarily hired by BP to clean up the oil. They're still trying to figure out how to live in the future. And the waters have been reopened for fishing, but people just don't trust the government assurances that the seafood is safe to eat. And that's affecting tourism, and that's what this region really relies on.

So, the saga of New Orleans and the whole Gulf region continues.

HANSEN: NPR's Mandalit del Barco in New Orleans. Mandalit, thank you.

DEL BARCO: Thank you.

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