Obama’s Xavier Speech, Deconstructed

Over the weekend, the President gave a speech at Xavier University in New Orleans to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting the Crescent City. While we at the Hayride have intentionally attempted to leave Katrina alone as much as possible, because we think (1) it’s been beaten to death already and (2) South Louisiana is a lot more threatened by Obama’s offshore drilling moratorium at this point than any after-effects of that hurricane, Obama’s speech is replete with assertions which must be answered.

Which is why we’re here…

It’s great to be back in New Orleans, and an honor to be back at Xavier University. I’m inspired to spend time with folks who have demonstrated what it means to persevere in the face of tragedy – and rebuild in the face of ruin. Thank you, Jade, for your introduction – and congratulations on being crowned Miss Xavier.

As Jade said, she was a junior at Ben Franklin High School five years ago when the storm came. After Katrina, Ben Franklin High was terribly damaged by wind and water. Millions of dollars were needed to rebuild the school. Many feared it would take years to reopen – if it could reopen at all. But then something remarkable happened. Parents and teachers, students and volunteers got to work making repairs. Donations came in from across New Orleans and around the world. And soon, silent, darkened corridors were bright and filled with the sounds of young men and women, including Jade, heading to class again. Jade then committed to Xavier, a University that likewise refused to succumb to despair. So Jade, like so many students here, embodies hope – and that sense of hope in difficult times is what I came to talk about today.

It has been five years since Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. There is no need to dwell on what you experienced and what the world witnessed: water pouring through broken levees; mothers holding their children above the waterline; people stranded on rooftops begging for help; bodies lying in the streets of a great American city. It was a natural disaster but also a manmade catastrophe; a shameful breakdown in government that left countless men, women, and children abandoned and alone. Shortly after the storm, I came down to Houston to spend time with some of the folks who took shelter there. I’ll never forget what one woman told me. “We had nothing before the hurricane,” she said. “Now we got less than nothing.”

Obama’s statement that those who chose not to evacuate from New Orleans after being ordered to by local authorities were “abandoned and alone” is a bald-faced lie. Precisely when were these people “abandoned and alone?” Was it immediately after the storm passed and the levees broke, when Coast Guard helicopters and citizens in boats rescued tens of thousands of people from their homes? Was it 72 hours later, when the National Guard arrived in deuce-and-a-half trucks loaded with supplies to help evacuate the Superdome and the Convention Center?

There was a shameful breakdown, all right. The fact that tens of thousands of New Orleanians were conditioned to believe that government, rather than they themselves, were responsible for taking control of their own safety indicates a breakdown on a major scale. And Obama’s policies seek to compound this problem for political gain.

 In the years that followed, 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 of a once vibrant and wonderful city laid low by indifference and neglect. But that is not what happened. It’s not what happened at Ben Franklin. It’s not what happened at Xavier. And that’s not what happened across New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. It is true that this city has become a symbol. But it’s a symbol of resilience, of community, of the fundamental responsibility we have for one another.

He’s got the first two right. New Orleans has proven its resilience, though the Saints winning the Super Bowl, which had almost nothing to do with government (the state took steps to induce Tom Benson not to pull the team out of the city, but no government official signed Drew Brees, drafted Marcus Colston or found Pierre Thomas), did more to create community than any billion-dollar federal program ever could. As for “the fundamental responsibility we have for one another,” the lesson of Katrina is that fundamentally you’ve got to take responsibility for yourself, and not burden others, during an emergency like that storm.

We see that at Xavier. Less than a month after the storm struck, amidst debris and flood-damaged buildings, President Francis promised that this university would reopen in a matter of months. Some said he was crazy. But they didn’t count on what would happen when one force of nature met another. By January – four months later – class was in session. Less than a year after the storm, I had the privilege of delivering a commencement address to the largest graduating class in Xavier’s history.

Xavier’s post-Katrina recovery is a terrific story. It’s also a private sector story.

We see that in the efforts of Joycelyn Heintz, who is here today. Katrina left her house under 14 feet of water. But after volunteers helped her rebuild, she joined AmeriCorps to serve the community herself – part of a wave of AmeriCorps members who have been critical to the rebirth of this city and the rebuilding of this region. Today, she manages a local center for mental health and wellness.

Maybe I’m out of touch, and I certainly don’t mean to diminish anyone’s role in the city’s recovery, but in five years I’ve heard nothing about AmeriCorps being critical to New Orleans’ rebirth. Guess you learn something new every day.

We see the symbol that this city has become in the St. Bernard Project, whose co-founder Liz McCartney is with us. This endeavor has drawn volunteers from across the country to rebuild hundreds of homes throughout St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward.

I saw the sense of purpose people felt after the storm when I visited Musicians’ Village in the Ninth Ward back in 2006. Volunteers were not only constructing houses; they were coming to together to preserve the culture of music and art that is part of the soul of this city – and the soul of this country. Today, more than 70 homes are complete, and construction is underway on the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music.

We see the dedication to the community in the efforts of Xavier graduate Dr. Regina Benjamin, who mortgaged her home and maxed out her credit cards so she could reopen her Bayou la Batre clinic to care for victims of the storm – and who is now our nation’s Surgeon General.

Thanks for depriving New Orleans of one of its top physicians, Mr. President.

And we see that resilience – that hope – exemplified by students at Carver High School. They’ve helped raise more than a million dollars to build a new community track and football field – their “Field of Dreams” – for the Ninth Ward.

Because of you – all the advocates and organizers here today, folks who are leading the way toward a better future for this city with innovative approaches to fight poverty, improve health care, reduce crime, and create opportunities for young people – because of you, New Orleans is coming back.

Five years ago, many questioned whether people could ever return to this city. Today, New Orleans is one of the fastest growing cities in America, with a big surge in new small businesses. Five years ago, the Saints had to play every game on the road because of the damage to the Superdome. Well, two weeks ago, we welcomed the Saints to the White House as Super Bowl champions. We marked the occasion with a 30-foot po’boy made with shrimp and oysters from the Gulf. There were no leftovers.

There’s a big surge in small businesses partially because your predecessor got the government out of the way and gave favorable tax treatment to the place, Mr. President.

Of course, I don’t have to tell you that there are still too many vacant and overgrown lots. There are still too many students attending classes in trailers. There are still too many people unable to find work. And there are still too many New Orleanians who have not been able to come home. So while an incredible amount of progress has been made, on this fifth anniversary, I wanted to come here and tell the people of this city directly: my administration is going to stand with you – and fight alongside you – until the job is done.

He’s not fighting alongside us. He’s behind us with a garrotte. This president had an estimate of 23,000 lost jobs in hand when he allowed his Interior Secretary to impose a ban on offshore drilling in the Gulf and it didn’t bother him in the least. If this is his idea of fighting alongside us, we’re better off abandoned and alone.

When I took office, I directed my cabinet to redouble our efforts, to put an end to the turf wars between agencies, to cut the red tape and the bureaucracy. I wanted to make sure that the federal government was a partner – instead of an obstacle – to the recovery of the Gulf Coast. And members of my cabinet – including my EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, who grew up in Pontchartrain Park – have come down here dozens of times. This wasn’t just to make appearances – to just be in a few photos putting up dry wall. This was so that they could listen, learn, and make real changes so that government was actually working for you.

Virtually every visit by a member of Obama’s cabinet, at least during the saga of the BP oil spill, has been followed by a policy change bordering on insanity. As for Jackson, she’s directly responsible for 540 miles of oiled shoreline for having insisted on the adherence to a nonsensical 15-parts-per-million marine discharge standard which rendered skimming operations ineffective for two months. She’s also working on a host of extralegal government intrusions which will serve to damage Louisiana industries and destroy local jobs. Ask around, Mr. President – Miz Jackson isn’t considered a local favorite in these parts.

For example, efforts to rebuild schools and hospitals, to repair damaged roads and bridges, and to get people back into their homes, were tied up for years in a tangle of disagreements and byzantine rules. So when I took office, working with Senator Mary Landrieu, we put in place a new way of resolving disputes, so that funds set aside for rebuilding efforts actually went toward rebuilding efforts. As a result, more than 170 projects are getting underway, including work on firehouses, police stations, roads, sewer systems, health clinics, libraries, and universities.

We’re tackling the corruption and inefficiency that has long plagued the New Orleans Housing Authority. We’re helping homeowners rebuild and making it easier for renters to find affordable options. And we’re helping people to move out of temporary homes. When I took office, more than three years after the storm, tens of thousands of families were still stuck in disaster housing – with many living in small trailers provided by FEMA. We were spending huge sums of money on temporary shelter when we knew it would be better for families, and less costly for taxpayers, to help people get into affordable, stable, and more permanent housing. So we’ve helped make it possible for people to find those homes, dramatically reducing the number of families in emergency housing.

In other words, most of the recovery work had already been done and Obama is now taking credit for things which were put in motion long before he took office.

On the health care front, as a candidate for President, I pledged to make sure we were helping New Orleans recruit doctors and nurses, and rebuild medical facilities – including a new veterans hospital. Well, we’ve resolved a long-standing dispute – one that tied up hundreds of millions of dollars – to fund the replacement for Charity Hospital. And in June, Veterans Secretary Ric Shinseki came to New Orleans for the groundbreaking of that new VA hospital.

This one is breathtaking. An arbitration panel ruled against the Obama administration in January and in favor of state officials on the Charity Hospital issue, and yet the President is going to take credit for building the facility? Wow. That’s a little like the Japanese taking credit for ending World War II.

In education, we’ve made strides as well. As you know, schools in New Orleans were falling behind long before Katrina. But in the years since the storm, a lot of public schools opened themselves up to innovation and reform. As a result, we’re actually seeing rising achievement and New Orleans is fast becoming a model for the nation. This is yet another sign that you’re not only rebuilding; you’re rebuilding stronger than before. Just this Friday, my administration announced a final agreement on $1. 8 billion dollars for Orleans Parish schools – money that had been locked up for years – so folks here could determine how best to restore the school system.

Riiiiight. New Orleans is benefiting from charter schools and a state scholarship program which operates a lot like a voucher program. In fact, it operates just like the voucher program in Washington, DC that Obama strangled to death as soon as he took office. Another breathtaker.

And in a city that has known too much violence and too much despair – that has seen too many young people lost to drugs and criminal activity – we’ve got a Department of Justice committed to working with New Orleans to fight the scourge of violent crime, to weed out corruption in the police force, and to ensure the criminal justice system works for everyone here. And I want to thank Mitch Landrieu, your new mayor, for his commitment to that partnership.

No mention of thanks to Sen. David Vitter, who had to hold up judicial appointments in Louisiana for the better part of a year so Jim Letten – the primary DoJ representative in New Orleans – could keep his job when Obama clearly had an eye on replacing the former George W. Bush appointee. Letten is widely regarded as the single most important force in the New Orleans area for fighting crime and corruption.

And let’s not get started on the “partnership” between Landrieu and Eric Holder. That’s a column, or several, all to itself. 

Even as we continue our recovery efforts, we’re also focusing on preparing for future threats – so that there is never another disaster like Katrina ever again. The largest civil works project in American history is underway to build a fortified levee system. And as I pledged as a candidate, we’re going to finish this system by next year, so that this city is protected against a 100-year storm. Because we should not be playing Russian roulette every Hurricane season. We’re also working to restore protective wetlands and natural barriers that were not only damaged by Katrina but had been rapidly disappearing for decades.

The levee system was already in the works before Obama got elected, so for him to take credit for it is another fraud. As for coastal restoration, has the President been instrumental in any progress on that front?

In Washington, we are restoring competence and accountability. I’m proud that my FEMA Director, Craig Fugate, has 25 years of experience in disaster management in Florida, a state that has known its share of hurricanes. We’ve put together a group led by Secretary Donovan and Secretary Napolitano to look at disaster recovery across the country. We’re improving coordination on the ground, modernizing emergency communications, and helping families plan for a crisis. And we’re putting in place reforms so that never again in America is someone left behind in a disaster because they’re living with a disability or they’re elderly or infirmed.

Lord help us.

Finally, even as you’ve been buffeted by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, as well as the broader recession that has devastated communities across the country, in recent months the Gulf Coast has seen new hardship as a result of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. And just as we have sought to ensure that we are doing what it takes to recover from Katrina, my administration has worked hard to match our efforts on the spill to what you need on the ground.

From the start, I promised you two things. One is that we would see to it that the leak was stopped. And it has been. But the second promise I made was that we would stick with our efforts, and stay on BP, until the damage to the Gulf and to the lives of the people in this region was reversed. And this, too, is a promise we will keep.

I can’t respond to this without profanity. Moratorium, anyone?

That is why we rapidly launched the largest response to an environmental disaster in American history. This has included 47,000 people on the ground and 5,700 vessels on the water to contain and clean up the oil. When I heard that BP was not moving fast enough on claims, we told BP to set aside $20 billion in a fund – managed by an independent third party – to help all those whose lives have been turned upside down by the spill. And we will continue to rely on sound science – carefully monitoring waters and coastlines as well as the health of people along the Gulf – to deal with any long-term effects of the oil spill. We are going to stand with you until the oil is cleaned up, the environment is restored, polluters are held accountable, communities are made whole, and this region is back on its feet.

Mr. President, your independent third party, who actually works for you, seems to be doing a heck of a lot more to deny claims than pay them. You also wasted 60 days in standing that third party up, and the $20 billion fund you extracted from BP allowed them to write off $10 billion in taxes this year – which essentially put the paying of claims on the back of the U.S. taxpayer, in total contravention of your representations. The idea that Obama is standing with us isn’t one shared by most of the people of South Louisiana, for these and other reasons. 

So that is how we are helping this city, this state, and this region to recover from the worst natural disaster in our nation’s history. We are cutting through the tangle of red tape that has impeded rebuilding efforts for years. We are making government work better and smarter – in coordination with one of the most expansive non-profit efforts in American history. And we are helping state and local leaders to address serious problems that had been neglected for decades – problems that existed long before 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.

Frankly, we’d be better off neglected than to endure much more “better and smarter” government from the likes of this president. Reforms in the judicial and education systems in New Orleans have come from local people acting to reform them – not Washington.

Together, we are helping to make New Orleans a place that stands for what we can do in America – not just for what we can’t do. And ultimately, that must be the legacy of Katrina: not one of neglect, but of action; not one of indifference, but of empathy; not of abandonment, but of a community working together to meet shared challenges.

The truth is, there are some wounds that do not heal. There are some losses that cannot be repaid. And for many who lived through those harrowing days five years ago, there is a searing memory that time will not erase. But even amid so much tragedy, we saw the stirrings of a brighter day. We saw men and women risking their own safety to save strangers. We saw nurses staying behind to care for the sick and injured. We saw families coming home to clean up and rebuild – not just their own homes, but their neighbors’ as well. We saw music and Mardi Gras and the vibrancy of this town undiminished. And we have seen many return to their beloved city with a newfound sense of obligation to this community.

When I came here four years ago, one thing that I found striking was all the greenery that had begun to come back. I was reminded of a passage from the book of Job. “There is hope for a tree if it be cut down that it will sprout again, and that its tender branch will not cease.” The work ahead will not be easy. There will be setbacks. There will be challenges along the way. But today, thanks to you and the people of this great city, New Orleans is blossoming once more.

Thank you.

Yeah, thanks. Thanks for nothing. Lift the moratorium before you show back up in Louisiana, Mr. President, if you want to have any credibility in claiming to be helping us.



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