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Obama to mark Katrina anniversary

Photo by Gerald Herbert

Photo by Gerald Herbert

VINEYARD HAVEN, Mass. -- President Barack Obama will use the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to reaffirm his commitment to the Gulf Coast amid lingering questions over his administration's response to the BP oil spill.

Obama ends his Martha's Vineyard vacation Sunday and heads to New Orleans, five years to the day from when Hurricane Katrina raged ashore, busting through crumbling levees and flooding 80 percent of the city, killing more than 1,600 people. Then-President George W. Bush was harshly criticized in many quarters for not responding aggressively enough to the disaster.

The unfinished business of helping make New Orleans whole is Obama's responsibility now. On Sunday, he will have the delicate task of commemorating the ravaging storm while reassuring residents who may still believe the government has failed them -- both when it comes to Katrina and to the BP spill.

''He inherited a legacy problem with New Orleans rebuilding just like so many incredible challenges with the economy,'' said Beth Galante, director of the New Orleans office of Global Green USA, a sustainable building initiative active in the city since the hurricane struck. ''It does really put the burden on him to acknowledge the failures and make sure there's a serious and ongoing federal commitment to righting those problems.''

Obama will speak at Xavier University, a historically black, Catholic university that was badly flooded by the storm. Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said Obama would commemorate the lives lost in the flooding, celebrate progress made in recovering, and ''recommit the nation to the Gulf region and to all those still working to rebuild lives and communities.''

Obama will also discuss the BP spill, which spewed more than 200 million gallons of crude into the Gulf for three months, dealing a fresh blow to New Orleans' tourism- and oil industry-dependent economy. The blown-out well was finally capped in mid-July.

The one-day visit comes at a sensitive time for the president, as he tries to set a fall agenda heading into crucial midterm elections. He's also preparing for an Oval Office address Tuesday on ending combat missions in Iraq that presents a challenge similar to the one awaiting him in New Orleans. He'll be paying homage to the troops for an action started by Bush that he has now taken over, amid public concerns he is botching the follow-on action in Afghanistan.

New Orleans residents are welcoming Obama's decision to highlight the Katrina anniversary with a presidential visit. But many are also angry over jobs lost from the deepwater oil drilling moratorium he ordered in the wake of the oil spill, and looking for more federal action to save precious wetlands that were eroding fast even before BP's well blew. They will be listening for specifics.

''What the city of New Orleans doesn't need is a booster talk,'' said historian Douglas Brinkley, who lived there during Katrina. ''We had George W. Bush come to Jackson Square and make all these promises that are unfulfilled. So I think it'd go far if he would fill in what is the plan.''