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Obama Marks Fifth Anniversary Of Katrina

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President Obama was in New Orleans on Sunday to mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. He spoke at Xavier University. NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro was there, and he tells guest host Audie Cornish why the president kept his message of recovery upbeat.


It's raining in New Orleans today, but the tone President Obama set there was upbeat as he focused on the ways the city has recovered from Hurricane Katrina.

NPR's Ari Shapiro is traveling with the president and joins us from New Orleans.

So, Ari, give us a quick overview of the president's day.

ARI SHAPIRO: Well, this was a transition out of vacation for the president, who boarded Air Force One in Massachusetts with his family this morning and then touched down in a dark and rainy New Orleans, as you saw.

He first went to this 100-year-old bakery tavern called Parkway, which took on six feet of water during Hurricane Katrina. Today, it was open and full of customers. The president ordered a shrimp po'boy and spoke with some people who were happy to see him.

Right now, he's visiting a housing complex. And I'm speaking to you from some brand new houses that have been built right across the street from some old houses that were virtually demolished in the storm.

But the main event of his visit today was a speech at Xavier University, a historically black college here in New Orleans that is Catholic-based and that he said was a symbol of recovery from the storm.

CORNISH: What was the focus of that speech?

SHAPIRO: Well, it was almost congratulatory in tone, congratulating the city on making a comeback. Listen to this excerpt of what he said.

President BARACK OBAMA: 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 and wonderful city had been laid low by indifference and neglect. But that's not what happened.

SHAPIRO: The university flooded during the storm. Some people said it might never open again. But just four or five months later, in January, the very next semester, the university was open.

CORNISH: So, Ari, when Mr. Obama was a senator, he was very critical of the Bush administration's response to the storm. But it seems like - did he take a different tone in this speech?

SHAPIRO: No, he was still critical. He didn't name Mr. Bush specifically, but he said, for example, when I took office three years after the storm, tens of thousands of families were still stuck in disaster housing.

He said, I'm proud that my FEMA director has 25 years of disaster experience. That was a not-so-oblique reference to Michael Brown, who was infamously President Bush's FEMA director, "Heck of a job, Brownie" is the phrase we all remember.

And he tied the New Orleans recovery into a larger theme that he has been emphasizing ever since he became president. This is the idea that government is capable of doing good things.

Here's something else that he said in the speech.

Pres. OBAMA: We're making government work better and smarter in coordination with one of the most expansive nonprofit efforts in American history. We're helping state and local leaders to address serious problems that had been neglected for decades, problems that existed before the storm came and have continued after the waters receded, from the levee system to the justice system, from the health care system to the education system.

CORNISH: The thing is that President Obama's actually been a pretty frequent visitor to the Gulf this year, but mainly because of the BP oil spill. So, I mean, tell us what did he have to say about that today.

SHAPIRO: He mentioned the BP oil spill, and it was part of his larger message that his administration is not prematurely declaring victory and abandoning the Gulf. He said we are going to be with this region until it is made whole. That's something he has said many times.

All in all, though, Americans have seen and heard a lot of President Obama in the Gulf addressing bad news. Today was a different kind of message, and I think he was happy to have the opportunity to deliver some good news.

CORNISH: NPR's White House correspondent, Ari Shapiro, traveling with the president.

Ari, thanks so much.

SHAPIRO: My pleasure.

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