Obama, in New Orleans, promises to ‘fight alongside’ Gulf Coast

Five years after Hurricane Katrina, President Obama recommitted the nation to repairing the Gulf Coast as the region’s fragile recovery hangs in balance and his popularity sags after the BP oil spill.

Obama underscored the optimism and frustration in New Orleans, a city that shows signs of renewal despite lingering devastation.

Residents worry the nation will leave them behind, fatigued by the one-two punch of the hurricane and oil spill. Obama seemed intent on convincing them otherwise.

“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,” Obama said at Xavier University, a historically black college where he delivered the commencement address the year after Katrina.

After being criticized for his administration’s slow response to the oil spill, Obama cited the improvements he has made in streamlining Katrina aid, including $1.8 billion for Orleans Parish schools.

Obama pledged to finish the largest civil works project in the nation’s history -- shoring up the failed levees -- by next year. He noted the June groundbreaking on a Veterans Affairs hospital.

Yet despite Obama’s efforts to separate his gulf legacy from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, the two may be indelibly linked by the perceived inability of government to adequately respond to disaster.

“We are going to stand with you until the oil is cleaned up, until the environment is restored, until polluters are held accountable, until communities are made whole, and until this region is all the way back on its feet,” Obama said.

Louisiana’s Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, was disappointed the president did not discuss lifting the post-spill drilling moratorium or federal efforts to protect the coastal wetlands from erosion.

“The fact that they’re not doing their job in D.C. shouldn’t cost thousands of Louisianans our jobs,” Jindal said after Obama’s speech. “There’s still much, much more work that needs to be done.”

From vibrant tourist streets in the French Quarter to Making It Right homes Brad Pitt’s organization is building in the Lower 9th Ward, the city “is blossoming again,” as Obama said.

Yet, many neighborhoods wiped out when the levees failed look like abandoned housing tracts where a developer put up street signs, a few model homes and nothing else.

Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) took aim Sunday at one conservative commentator’s assertion that government should leave rebuilding to the private sector, noting that nonprofit organizations have replaced only 5,000 of the 200,000 homes lost.

“Glenn Beck has to go back and look at the facts because he is preaching a gospel that never has existed, doesn’t exist today, and never will,” Landrieu said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

The vast nothingness can wear on residents who remain. For a city that treats its front porches as another room of the house, stepping out each day to look up and down the street, as musician Renard Copelin does, is “extremely depressing.”

Copelin, 55, an out-of-work keyboard player, is still troubled by the cries he did not answer from neighbors as he swam from the Lower 9th Ward to higher ground.

Hundreds of 9th Ward residents marched Sunday from the neighborhood’s Katrina memorial to a bridge to drop a wreath into waters that knocked homes off foundations and killed many of their neighbors.

Obama’s appointee to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Craig Fugate, vows the nation will better respond to disasters with a new “think big, go big, go fast” approach.

“I understand I’m never going to be able to reassure people we’ll get it right next time,” Fugate said.

Obama’s popularity has always been tenuous in the state that voted overwhelmingly for John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. The president and other administration officials have visited the region 155 times since Obama took office.

“More important than the visit is the speed in which they get things done,” said Robert Dupont, an associate professor of history at the University of New Orleans and an Obama supporter. “We’re not ungrateful. We’re not whining. But it has taken a long time.”

Times staff writer Kim Murphy in New Orleans contributed to this report.