CNN Wire Staff
New Orleans, Louisiana (CNN) - Calling the federal response to Hurricane Katrina "a shameful breakdown in government," President Barack Obama said Sunday as rebuilding continues, officials are looking ahead to avoid a repeat when future disasters strike.
Speaking at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans to mark the fifth anniversary of Katrina, Obama said construction of a fortified levee system to protect the city is underway and will be finished by next year, "We should not be playing Russian roulette every hurricane season," he said.
"There is no need to dwell on what you experienced and what the world witnessed," the president said, speaking to a crowd that included current New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and members of Louisiana's Congressional delegation.
"We all remember it keenly - water pouring through broken levees; mothers holding their children above the waterline; people stranded on rooftops begging for help; and bodies lying in the streets of a great American city," Obama said. "It was a natural disaster but also a man-made catastrophe; a shameful breakdown in government that left countless men and women and children abandoned and alone."
Tom Foreman | BIO
All this weekend tales of Katrina will fill the air, as surely as that massive storm did five years ago; stories of homes and lives lost, communities and hopes regained. As a former resident of New Orleans, it all fascinates me. Like details of the oyster harvest and the starting lineup for the Saints.
But I also understand why others, like say folks from Maine or North Dakota, might say
“Why does this matter to me?”
Let’s put aside all those fuzzy notions of caring for your fellow human beings. Let’s even suppose that you don’t give a crawfish’s tail for music, great cooking, or any of the half dozen items within your reach right now that came through the Port of New Orleans.
Katrina still matters because momentous events are one of the clearest measures we have of whether or not our leaders know what the heck they are doing. Most of us can’t fathom the national debt. The economy is as clear as mud. International affairs? We don’t grasp that too easily either, unless they involve “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” But natural disasters, we get. And when a politician and his team screws up the response, we pretty much all know it. Honestly, whether you are a Democrat, Republican, or Independent did you really need a DC pundit to tell you that the photo of President Bush flying over the Katrina wreckage was a mistake?
Chicago got its first female mayor because the guy in office blew the cleanup from a big blizzard. Floods. Wildfires. Earthquakes. Unusually high humidity. When something in the natural world goes wrong, the way it is handled by our leaders highlights their strengths and weaknesses in bricks and mortar terms. At least a lot more than a hearing in the Appropriations Committee.
I don’t have electricity? You don’t get my vote. Roads impassable? Do not pass go. We’re out of clean water? You’re out of office.
The long term ability of our leaders to hang in there, keep dealing with the troublesome problems that linger after the TV cameras leave…well, in many ways that’s the real measure of leadership. That’s what disasters can show us, and that’s why Katrina still matters.
In the five years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, some areas have rebuilt while others remain unchanged. CNN photographers and iReporters collaborated in a powerful past-meets-present photography project to show what the region looks like today.
Program Note: Five years after Hurricane Katrina, see how three extraordinary CNN Heroes are determined to bring New Orleans back. Watch their inspiring story, hosted by Anderson Cooper: "CNN Heroes: Coming Back from Katrina," at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday and Sunday on CNN.
When Tad Agoglia started to clean up the mess caused by Hurricane Katrina, he couldn't help thinking he was weeks behind schedule.
It was two months after the storm, and his crane operating company had just been hired to help in Louisiana.
"I wondered what it would have been like if I had been there on day one," Agoglia said.
Frustrated by the kind of bureaucratic red tape that delayed aid after Katrina, Agoglia started the First Response Team of America, a mobile, "24-hour-a-day firehouse" that provides free emergency aid within hours of a catastrophe. Since 2007, the nonprofit group has responded to many of the country's worst natural disasters, including floods in Rhode Island and Tennessee and tornadoes in Alabama and Mississippi.
Tom Foreman | BIO
New Orleans, Louisiana (CNN) - Much has been made of the more than quarter-million homes lost to Katrina along the Gulf Coast, and with good reason. Ride through almost any neighborhood that was hit and even five years later you can see the skeletons of buildings, or empty lots covered with weeds.
But to truly grasp the impact of this storm, you also have to consider who lived in those homes: Working families; the people who make the ports, the fishing business, the oil industry and the tourist attractions work.