President Barack Obama has held out the people of New Orleans as an extraordinary example of renewal and resilience 10 years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
He made the comments while visiting city residents on porch stoops and sampling the fried chicken at a corner restaurant on Thursday.
Obama was a new American senator when Katrina’s powerful winds and rain struck Louisiana on August 29, 2005.
The storm caused major damage to the Gulf Coast from Texas to central Florida while causing a storm surge that breached the system of levees meant to protect New Orleans from flooding.
Video of residents seeking refuge on rooftops, inside the Superdome and at the convention centre dominated news coverage as Katrina came to symbolise government failure at every level.
“There’s something in you guys that is just irrepressible,” Obama told hundreds of residents assembled at a new community centre in an area of the Lower 9th Ward that was once under almost 5.2m of water.
“The people of New Orleans didn’t just inspire me, you inspired all of America.”
Obama held out the city’s comeback as a metaphor for what was happening all across a nation that has moved from economic crisis to higher ground.
“Look at what’s happened here,” he declared, speaking of a transformed US city that was once “dark and underwater”.
Still, Obama acknowledged that much remains to be done.
And after walking door to door in the historic Treme section of a city reborn from tragedy, he cautioned that “just because the housing is nice doesn’t mean our job is done”.
Areas of the city still suffer from high poverty, he said, and young people still take the wrong path.
There is more to be done to confront “structural inequities that existed long before the storm happened”, he said.
In his remarks at the community centre, Obama blended the same themes of resilience and renewal that he drew from encounters with the residents he met along Magic Street and at other locations.
Obama was clearly energised by his visits, at one point breaking into a song from The Jeffersons sitcom after meeting a young woman who calls herself Ouisie.
He stopped for fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House, and pronounced the resulting grease stain on his suit a good indication that he had enjoyed his stay in the city.
Obama held out the community centre as “an example of what is possible when, in the face of tragedy and in the face of hardship, good people come together to lend a hand and, brick by brick, block by block, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, you build a better future”.
“And that more than any other reason is why I’ve come back here today,” he said.
In his speech, Obama said Katrina helped expose inequalities that long plagued New Orleans and left too many people, especially minorities, without good jobs, affordable healthcare or decent housing and too many kids growing up in the midst of violent crime and attending inefficient schools.
In addition to devastating New Orleans, Katrina marked the high watermark of criticism of George W Bush’s administration: A photograph of a concerned but detached president viewing the damage from Air Force One has become emblematic of the politics of the crisis.
Obama risked looking similarly out of touch if he too strongly talked up New Orleans’ recovery, opinion polls suggest.
According to a recent Louisiana State University poll, the vast majority of white people in the city believe the state has mostly recovered from the storm.
Three in five black residents, however, say it has not.