Obama joins New Orleans to remember Katrina’s victims

Barack Obama flew in to New Orleans to promise that the federal government would continue to help the city back on to its feet, after the twin ravages of Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Across the city they call the Big Easy, residents, politicians and celebrities were marking the fifth anniversary of the day that Katrina slammed into the coast, and mourning the 1,800 people who lost their lives when the levees protecting the city from floodwaters were breached.

Some 300,000 people were displaced by the storm, whose harrowing images of suffering – from people stranded on rooftops, to the misery of people sheltering without food and water inside the New Orleans Superdome – have been replayed again and again over the weekend.

Across the city – as throughout Louisiana and the neighbouring state of Mississippi, also slammed by Katrina – memorials and marches took place yesterday.

Bells rang out at church services, while a "healing ceremony" was planned in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, where only about a quarter of the 5,400 homes that once stood in the area have been rebuilt since the storm. A proliferation of art and music festivals highlighted a return of the vibrant cultural movement that made New Orleans unique among American cities.

Mr Obama, flying in at the end of his 10-day summer holiday, chose Xavier University for his remarks as a symbol of that renewal. The school was under water for two weeks after the levees broke but, with the aid of $55m (£35m) in federal government grants, was reopened just five months later and was quickly back to 80 per cent of its pre-Katrina student numbers.

"Katrina was a natural disaster but also a man-made catastrophe," Mr Obama said, "a shameful breakdown in government that left countless men, women and children abandoned and alone ... New Orleans could have remained a symbol of destruction and decay; of a storm that came and the inadequate response that followed. But that is not what happened."

He praised the effort to rebuild the levees, which is the largest civil works project in American history and is due to be finished next year. The completion of the work would mean that New Orleans would no longer be "playing Russian roulette every hurricane season", he said. The President also promised to "keep on BP" to fund the recovery from the oil spill, which has hit tourism and the fishing industry along the coast.

"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 Obama said.

The President visited some of the businesses that were local institutions before the storm, and have since been rebuilt and reopened. At a family-owned shop, closed for nearly three months after Katrina, co-owners Jay and Eileen Nix were serving a crowd of Sunday lunch-goers when the President arrived. He ordered the shrimp.

Administration officials fanned out across the Gulf region to commemorate the anniversary. Housing secretary Shaun Donovan told CNN's State of the Union yesterday: "This is the place where I think the American people witnessed a real loss of faith in their federal government.

"I have really been moved by the spirit of the people in New Orleans in the Gulf, and the optimism in progress that I have seen. More than 90 per cent of the population is back in the New Orleans area, and there is still much ahead of us."

Celebrities, too, had flown in to mark the anniversary and review their own charitable efforts. Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock returned to a New Orleans high school she adopted after the hurricane in order to open a health clinic there. And Brad Pitt, whose Make It Right project is building dozens of eco-friendly and flood-resistant homes, said the city was "a cultural treasure trove" for America.

Around $114bn in federal funds has been committed to the region to recovery from the deadly hurricane season of 2005, but still more will be needed to fully restore New Orleans, the city's new mayor said yesterday. "It's going to require a huge lift by the entire country," Mitch Landrieu said on NBC's Meet The Press. "You cannot take it as a fait accompli that this city is going to come back."

The mayor's sister, Mary Landrieu, who is the Democratic senator for Louisiana, called on the Obama administration to quickly lift a moratorium on offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, which she said has set back the region's economy.

"A six-month moratorium has put a blanket of fear and anxiety [over the region] and it must be lifted as soon as possible," she said, in order to help small businesses affected by the ban. "We need to get back to work to build this region and we intend to do so."

Katrina by numbers

145mph speed of winds when the storm made landfall

80% Proportion of New Orleans flooded on 31 August 2005

15ft Depth of the water in some parts of the city

1,836 Number of people who lost their lives

$81bn Estimated total cost in property damage

182,000 Homes destroyed

455,000 Population in mid-2005

355,000 Population now

$142bn Recovery funding for the Gulf Coast so far