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Pres. Obama touts resiliency of residents 10 years after Katrina

31st August 2015   ·   0 Comments

By Ryan Whirty
Contributing Writer

As President Obama moved from what is an emergency loan deal house to house down Magic Street — hugging, shaking hands and chatting with residents of the brand new mixed-income development in Tremé — a crowd congregated behind a yellow nylon rope at the intersection of Magic and North Tonti streets, eagerly awaiting the president to approach and speak with them.

Under a bright blue sky and shiny sun, a gaggle of reporters and photographers hustled after the president as he spoke with the Harris family on their stoop — including a shy little girl clad in a pink shirt and rainbow shorts — and kissed Leah Chase, owner of the famous Dooky Chase restaurant, on the cheek as she sat in her wheelchair on the sidewalk.

“Thank you all so much,” Mrs. Chase told The Louisiana Weekly. “This is so beautiful.”

But during it all, standing back from the action, stood resident George Herden, his arms crossed in front of him against a gray tank top and long jean shorts. Bald but with a ring of long salt-and-pepper hair around his head, Herden seemed as though he was viewing the proceedings with a mixture of pride, skepticism and bemusement. He was, it seems, wearing a poker face.

“It’s good for the community,” Herden said, finally cracking a faint smile as he discussed President Obama’s visit to New Orleans on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina last Thursday. “Some children here never get to see people like this.”

Herden’s visage and comments perhaps summed up Obama’s whirlwind visit to NOLA; both residents and the public officials who spoke to the throngs of people packed into the Sanchez Community Center later in the afternoon stressed that while much has been accomplished and many residents have gotten back on their feet over the last 10 years, much, much more work is left to be done. And that is the challenge that lies ahead.

“Just because these houses are nice doesn’t mean the job is done,” Obama told the pool of media, Mayor Mitch Landrieu by his side, before the members of the motorcade piled back in their vehicles and whisked away. “We still have a lot of poverty here. This is still a community that needs recovery.”

While that theme of progress and further challenges echoed throughout Obama’s afternoon tour, his few hours in New Orleans were also sprinkled with touches of politicking at its finest and most make legit money online subtle.

When Air Force One landed at the New Orleans Louis Armstrong International Airport, he was greeted by a trio of dignitaries — Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, GOP U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy and Landrieu, a Democrat. Obama politely but quickly shook the hands of the two Republication officials before embracing Landrieu in a hug. Later, while touring Tremé, Obama lavished Landrieu with praise, telling the media that the Democratic mayor was doing a wonderful job bringing the city back from disaster.

The political jabs continued when Obama arrived at the Sanchez Community Center in the Lower 9th Ward to hold a closed-door, 45-minute roundtable with various city, state and federal elected officials and representatives from local charities and grass-roots activist organizations.

The centerpiece of Obama’s visit was his speech to a standing-room-only, packed auditorium at the Sanchez Center. The crowd at the event included a healthy mixture of races, genders and ages, from upper-middle-age African-American gentlemen in suits to white teenage girls in tank tops and short shorts.

The scene inside the center was also accompanied by a large throng of people congregating outside the structure on the neutral ground of Claiborne Avenue, with many bystanders holding umbrellas to shield themselves from the bright sun, and one man holding a huge, hand-written sign that asserted that “State Farm is a liar and thief.”

Before Obama gave his lengthy addressed to the packed house inside the center, his talk was preceded by a rousing performance by a youth drum and brass band from the Roots of Music community improvement organization, as well as emphatic and at times powerful speeches by former mayor and current Urban League President Marc Morial, Democratic U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond and Landrieu. (No Republican officials offered comments, although Cassidy did take part in the roundtable discussion that preceded Obama’s centerpiece speech. Conspicuously absent from all the proceedings, save for the arrival of Air Force One, was Jindal.)

All the speakers again stressed the underlying theme that resonated throughout Obama’s whirlwind visit — citywide resilience and a unified community effort has accomplished much over the last decade to bring the city back, better than it was before the flood, but that a great deal of effort of rolling up of the sleeves remains left ahead.

“This is sacred ground,” Morial said of the Sanchez center and the Lower 9th ways to save cash fast as a whole. “This ground might have been flood and washed by the waters, but that is also ground that will rise again.”

He added rousingly and forcefully, “Lower 9th! Lower 9th! Lower 9th! … Those of you who know this neighborhood know how much resilience, how much passion, how much talent this city contains. … This recovery is at halftime. There is so much more lifting to be done. Today is only a continuation of a commitment.”

Richmond stressed New Orleans and the Lower 9th Ward’s amazing ability to bounce back after each and every blow it has taken throughout its history, from the early 19th century fires and yellow fever epidemic to the various devastating hurricanes it has endured over the decades.

“When you look at the history of New Orleans,” Richmond said, “we get back up. We always pick ourselves back up because we’re resilient. … New Orleans is too important to lose. … We have to remember that we still have promised to keep and miles to walk before we sleep.” The last comment referenced a famous poem by Robert Frost.

But arguably stealing the show and the spotlight was Landrieu, whose speech began quietly but slowly heightened to volume, forcefulness and confidence, an address that drew several rounds of applause and cheers from the packed audience.

“It was our darkest hour,” Landrieu said about the days and weeks following the arrival of Katrina and the resulting floods. “It was a natural disaster, but then it was a man-made disaster. It was our darkest time, our lowest of lows.”

But, he said, after that initial shock and grief arose such a sense of cross-ethnic camaraderie and united lifting up that the country and even the world had never seen before.

“Everybody was helping each other out,” Landrieu said in a speech that was sprinkled with Biblical references. “And then, you know what, the rest of the world came to our aid. Out of tragedy, hope came. … We had to get back to work. Many people doubted us, and many people challenged us to do more. But no matter what comes, hell or high water — and we’ve seen both — we are coming back.”

This article originally published in the August 31, 2015 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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