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President Obama ended his vacation on Martha's Vineyard yesterday, and headed straight for New Orleans. He's visited that city lately, dealing with the oil spill in the Gulf. This time, Mr. Obama was marking the fifth anniversary of a different disaster, Hurricane Katrina, with a tour and a speech.
NPRs Ari Shapiro traveled with the president.
ARI SHAPIRO: President Obama, his family and first dog Bo climbed aboard Air Force One on a sunny, clear, Massachusetts morning. When the plane touched down in New Orleans a few hours later, the skies were dark and menacing. The motorcade stopped first at a restaurant called Parkway Bakery and Tavern.
The restaurant has stood here, in the midcity neighborhood, for a century. Water in the street was 10 feet deep during Katrina. But now, the restaurant is crowded with happy families, including Brian Quirk(ph), who's eating lunch with his wife and three kids.
Mr. BRIAN QUIRK: Were surprised to see the president here. Glad to see him supporting the region.
SHAPIRO: Is there anything specific youd like to hear him say about the recovery?
Mr. QUIRK: Just that they are here for the long haul.
Whats your general sense of how the recovery has gone over five years?
Mr. QUIRK: I think it was slow in the beginning, but I think weve taken off. And we have a long way to go, obviously, but I'm hopeful.
SHAPIRO: As the kitchen dished out food, a voice said over the speaker system: David, pickup; Jean, pickup. Then...
(Soundbite of overlapping conversations)
SHAPIRO: Although the president had promised the crowd he would try the alligator sausage, he went with a shrimp Po' Boy.
Then the motorcade crossed town to Xavier University, where a pharmacy student named Jade Young introduced the president. Young described her memories of the storm from when she was in high school: the flooding, the evacuation, the desperation trying to contact her brother and her uncle, who stayed behind.
Ms. JADE YOUNG (Pharmacy Student, Xavier University): The last words my mother heard them say was, the water is rising, before the phone went silent. And we lost contact until several days later.
SHAPIRO: Xavier is a Catholic, historically black university. The campus was underwater during Katrina. But four months later, the school reopened. President Obama called that speedy recovery emblematic of what happened all across the city.
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: As a senator and a candidate, Barack Obama harshly criticized the Bush administration's response to Katrina. In this speech he took a similar tone, calling Katrina a natural disaster but also a manmade catastrophe, a shameful breakdown in government.
President OBAMA: I am proud that my FEMA director, Craig Fugate, has 25 years of experience in disaster management in Florida...
(Soundbite of cheering and applause)
SHAPIRO: That was a not-so-oblique reference to President Bush's FEMA director, Michael Brown, who was criticized for his lack of experience.
Mr. Obama's presidency has been a long-term effort to convince skeptical Americans that government can improve people's lives. This speech tried to advance that argument.
President OBAMA: 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.
SHAPIRO: He made the point with a final stop at a new public housing development, where he took a tour and met with locals.
But this was not purely a victory lap. The president said there is more to be done, and he promised to stay engaged until the Gulf is all the way back on its feet.
Thats a promise he has made several times in the last year. But on the whole, this visit had a very different tone from Mr. Obama's other recent trips to New Orleans. His other visits have been to talk about the BP oil spill. But this time, he kept his focus on good news instead of bad.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News.
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