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Obama Vows To Rebuild New Orleans


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Today, President Obama visited a rebuilt school in New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward, and he took questions from frustrated residents at a town hall meeting. It was Mr. Obama's first trip to New Orleans as president. He said he is committed to the city's recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

NPR's Don Gonyea traveled with the president.

DON GONYEA: For block after block, the ride into New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward still contains too many reminders of Katrina and floodwaters that roared through when the levee broke. Abandoned houses with frames askew on their foundations, cement slabs shorn of their structures. But in the middle of all this stands the Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School, where this afternoon the school band greeted the president of the United States with a song it just started learning yesterday.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

GONYEA: This school was the first to be rebuilt in the Lower Ninth after the storm. Today, in the combination cafeteria/auditorium, students in crisp school uniforms sat eight to a table as the president worked the room. He praised the pre-K to 10th grade school, noting that it's performing better than it did before Katrina. And he closed by asking these students to make a promise.

President BARACK OBAMA: I just got a promise - I want a promise from every single one of you that you guys are going to work hard in school each and every day. Give me that promise. You promise?

Unidentified People: Yes.

Pres. OBAMA: You give a pinky promise?

Unidentified People: Yeah.

Pres. OBAMA: Pinky promise. All right, you know, that's a big promise there. So, I'm counting on you guys. I'm going to come back and check on you guys to make sure you've all been working hard, all right?

(Soundbite of cheering)

Pres. OBAMA: Okay.

GONYEA: From the school, it was a short motorcade ride to the campus of the University of New Orleans for a town hall designed to let the president hear firsthand what people here want. It was an Obama-friendly crowd. In fact, the president had to scold them lightly for booing when he introduced Louisiana's Republican Governor Bobby Jindal.

But even in a friendly crowd, the frustrations four years after the storm were quickly evident. A man named Gabriel Bordenave stood up, asking why the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, takes so long to reimburse claims.

Mr. GABRIEL BORDENAVE: We've also been without a full service public hospital for the last four years because FEMA...

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. BORDENAVE: We've been without a full service hospital for the last four years because FEMA is offering $350 million less than the true damage costs incurred. I mean, I expected as much from the Bush administration, but why are we still being nickeled and dimed in our recovery?

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Bordenave is 29 years old, a recent graduate of the Tulane Law School and unemployed. The president said he understands the frustration, then without mentioning President Bush, Mr. Obama said he has top notch people working at FEMA. But he added that these things are not going to be fixed tomorrow.

Pres. OBAMA: And my expectation is is that by the time that my term is over, you guys are going to look back and you're going to say, this was a responsive administration on health care, on housing, on education that actually made sure that the money flowed and that things got done the way were supposed to get done.

GONYEA: New Orleans voted heavily for Mr. Obama in last fall's election, and he has a tremendous amount of goodwill here. But the past four years have been long and the frustration continues to grow.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.