The following are President Obama's prepared town hall opening remarks at the University of New Orleans. This is President Obama's first trip to New Orleans as President, though he has been to the city five times since Katrina. White House spokesman Nick Shapiro says during those visits President Obama, "has done most of the things people are saying they want him to do, what he hasn’t done is hold a public event where he can hear directly from the people of New Orleans, so that is what he is doing on this trip.”
The White House estimates that there are approximately 1,350 people in the audience at today's town hall. 70 percent of the tickets were general admission, distributed randomly among people who signed up online and over the phone. The other 30 percent was distributed by the White House to elected officials and community leaders.
Read the prepared opening remarks (as prepared for delivery) below:
Hello, New Orleans! It is great to be back in the Crescent City. And it is always an inspiration to spend time with the men and women who have reminded the rest of us what it means to persevere in the face of tragedy and rebuild in the face of ruin. Katrina may have swept through this city, but it did not destroy this community, and that is because of you - the people of New Orleans.
It has now been just over four years since that terrible storm struck your shores. And in the days after it did, this nation and all the world bore witness to the fact that the damage from Katrina was not just caused by a disaster of nature, but by a failure of government - a government that wasn't adequately prepared and didn't adequately respond.
I saw the consequences of this failure during my visits here as a Senator and then as a candidate. So when I took office as President, one of the first things I did was tell my Cabinet and senior staff that our Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts and our disaster response efforts were going to be top priorities for this White House. I wanted to get it right and I wanted us to be ready.
So far, we've made good progress. Over the last nine months, we've sent more Cabinet members to this region than almost anywhere else in the country - not just to make appearances, but to listen, learn, and help you move forward. And as we continue this recovery effort, I've made it clear that we're not going to tolerate the usual turf wars between agencies. So we've prioritized coordination between all levels of government. We've put in place innovative review and dispute resolution programs to get projects moving forward. And we've freed up over $1.5 billion in recovery and rebuilding assistance that had been tangled up in red tape for years.
This assistance is allowing us to move forward together with projects that were stalled across the Gulf Coast - projects rebuilding and improving schools; investing in public health and safety; and repairing broken roads, bridges, and buildings. And this effort has been dramatically amplified by the Recovery Act, which has put thousands of Gulf Coast residents back to work.
On the housing front, we are tackling the corruption and inefficiency that plagued the New Orleans Housing Authority for years. We've also been able to dramatically cut the number of people who are still in emergency housing. And we're moving families towards self-sufficiency by helping homeowners rebuild and renters find affordable options.
On the education front, I just visited Martin Luther King Charter School, the first school to reopen in the Ninth Ward and an inspiration for this city. We've also worked to be a better partner and free up funding that has allowed places like this university and the Southern University of New Orleans to rebuild. We are looking for ways to be more flexible, so New Orleans can build the school system it deserves. And because a lot of your public schools opened themselves up to new ideas and innovative reforms, we're actually seeing an improvement in overall achievement that is making the city a model for reform nationwide.
When it comes to health care, we've invested in supporting health centers, and recruiting more primary care providers, nurses, and other medical professionals to fill the shortage left by Katrina. We remain committed to building a new VA medical center in downtown New Orleans so that we can better serve and care for our veterans. And to help fight crime, we're helping hire cops and rebuild jails.
So that's what we're doing in terms of rebuilding and recovery. But we're also focusing on preparedness and response so that history does not repeat itself. We are committed to making sure that a disaster like Katrina does not happen again. In Washington, that means a focus on competence and accountability - and 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 my Homeland and Housing Secretaries to study disaster recovery across the country and figure out how to do it better. And across the country, we're improving coordination among different agencies, modernizing our emergency communications, and helping families plan for a crisis.
Here on the Gulf Coast, we're working to make sure this region is protected in the event of a 100-year storm. We've already seen 220 miles worth of levees and flood walls repaired, and we're also working to strengthen the wetlands and barrier islands that are the first line of defense for the Gulf Coast. This isn't just critical to this region's physical protection, it's critical to our environment and our economy. That's why we're establishing an interagency working group that will be responsible for coordinating our restoration efforts across the Gulf at all levels of government.
Still, even with all the action we've taken and all the progress we've made, we know how much work is left to be done. Whether you're driving through New Orleans, Biloxi, or the southwestern part of Louisiana, it's clear how far we have to go before we can call this recovery a success. There are sewers and roads still to repair. There are houses and hospitals still vacant. There are schools and neighborhoods still waiting to thrive once more. And so I promise you this - whether it's me coming down here or my Cabinet or other members of my Administration - we will never forget about New Orleans. We will never forget about the Gulf Coast. Together, we will rebuild this region and we will build it stronger than before.
I also know that for a lot of you, the questions and concerns you have aren't limited to the recovery effort that's taking place here on the Gulf Coast. You're also wondering about the recovery effort that's taking place throughout America. The economic storm that caused this recession certainly hasn't left behind the death and destruction that Katrina and Rita did. But it has caused incredible pain and hardship for communities all across this nation - communities that have seen too many jobs disappear, too many businesses close, and too many middle-class families who are barely making it.
These families are the backbone of America - they're the ones who built this country, made it great, and keep it going each and every day. And they deserve leaders in Washington who are willing to work as hard as they work; who are willing to fight for their futures.
That's why our goal is not just to rebound from this recession. It's to build an economy that works for all Americans; where everyone who's looking for work can find a job - and not just a temporary job, but a permanent job that lasts from season to season. We want an economy where our stock market is not only rising again but our businesses are hiring again. And I will not rest until we get there.
The Recovery Act we passed earlier this year has helped to stop the bleeding. It's put tax cuts in the pockets of working families and small businesses, extended unemployment insurance and health insurance to people who've been laid off, and saved or created hundreds of thousands of jobs - private sector jobs.
But the Recovery Act is just a start. If we want a recovery the lasts and an economy that really grows again, we need to rebuild stronger than before - just like you're doing here in New Orleans. We need to come together and meet the challenges that were with us before this recession hit. That means building a clean energy economy that can lead to millions of new jobs and new industries. That means building an education system that equips every citizen with the skills and training they need to compete with any worker in the world. And that means building a health care system that finally offers security to those who have insurance and affordable options to those who don't. Too many Americans have waited too long for this to happen, and that's why we will pass health care reform by the end of this year. It is time to get this done.
I never thought that any of this would be easy. As I said many times during the campaign, change is hard. Especially big change. And after the last nine months, you know I wasn't kidding. The challenges we face - both here on the Gulf Coast and throughout America - are big, complex challenges. They don't lend themselves to easy answers or quick fixes. Meeting them requires diligence, and perseverance, and patience.
It also requires more than just government programs and policies. It requires a renewed spirit of cooperation and commitment among our citizens - a renewed sense of responsibility to ourselves and to one another. It's the same spirit that took hold of this city and this region in the days after Katrina - a spirit that has sustained you to this day.
You see, I've talked a lot today about the steps we've taken at the federal level to help the Gulf Coast recover and rebuild. But the true story of this community's unbending resilience does not begin in Washington. It begins here, in the reborn neighborhoods of New Orleans. It begins with the men and women who waded into deep water or climbed onto rooftops and risked their own lives to save those of people they had never met. It begins with the doctors and nurses who stayed behind to care for the sick and injured without equipment or electricity - people like our nation's Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, who mortgaged her house and maxed out her credit cards so that she could reopen her clinic and care for victims of the storm.
It begins with the volunteer firefighters from this city who recently traveled to Iowa to help another community recover from the devastation of a tornado. They went because they still remember when New York City firefighters who had been through 9/11 came down to New Orleans after Katrina to help out.
And the story of this city's resilience begins with all the men and women who have refused to give up on their home; who have stayed to clean up and rebuild - not just their own homes or their own yards or their own lives, but their neighbors'.
Here at the University of New Orleans and at other colleges and universities in this city, this year's graduating class will be the first class that chose to apply to a New Orleans school after Katrina. They knew what had happened here, and they knew how much work is still left to be done, but they chose to come anyway. They wanted to be here.
Of all the signs of progress I've mentioned today, this is perhaps the most powerful - the idea that there are still people coming to this city - especially young people - who are committed to its future; who are ready and willing to withstand what storms may come; and eager to rebuild something better in place of what was. That's the kind of commitment and determination we need at this moment - not only in New Orleans, but all across America. And if we can harness that spirit, I have no doubt that we will succeed in meeting our greatest challenges. And now I'll be happy to take your questions.