Good Morning, what a great day this is in so many ways. And I am deeply honored to be here today and to have been asked to be your commencement speaker. I want to thank President Hughes, and the faculty of this great university, the alumni, the class of 1957 and all the family and friends who are gathered here. I want especially to congratulate my fellow honorees, Dr. Frank Mason, a long time friend and real hero of mine, Dr. Roberta Flack. I am hopeful that the feeling you all have today as you walk through those majestic oaks will stay with you as you leave this university and enter into the world you have been prepared to lead and serve.
President Hughes, I’m not sure if words exist to express the gratitude this assembly feels for you today. Certainly you and your trustees led by Trustee Roche face a challenge that rarely ever has had to be confronted by any university. And to think that you just arrived at Dillard, you were just unpacking you bags, you had only been here for two months, when you found yourself at the helm of a university that was under water. But true leaders are those who rise to whatever challenge confronts them. And no one has risen higher than your President. To the entire Dillard community, I thank you for you leadership and your example.
And to the members of the class of 2007, I am very proud to be here to congratulate you on this milestone moment. The day you know that all your hard work was worthwhile, the nights you spent studying, the days you spent in class, the hours you worked to earn your tuition money.
And that’s all in addition to the months you spent coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As I walked between you, you were holding the flags of the colleges and universities you attended during the time that Dillard was so grievously struck. And I was glancing at the names that were literally all over the country. I know it wasn’t easy, and I know that none of you did it alone. As your valedictorian pointed out, you were in this together, you found strength from each other, you may never have known before.
You had friends and family, teachers and preachers, administrators and staff who believed in you and sacrificed for you. They held you up when you were struggling. They would not let you give in to your fears and doubts. You are here because of them, and because as it is written in the scriptures, of their work of faith and labor of love, and steadfastness of hope. As I look out on these graduates, I see that you are the work, the glorious result of faith, love, and hope. Today, let us give thanks to all the family and friends and others that helped you along the way. Some are only here in spirit, but they are with you, they have guided you and I know that you are grateful to them.
Just think of that dark day nearly two years ago, you boarded those buses for destinations unknown, you may have wondered whether you would ever see this moment. Whether you would join all of the Dillard alumni who had marched down that Avenue of the Oaks. Whether you would ever be reunited with your faculty members that you have depended upon and learned so much from.
But while you may have been scared and uncertain, you did take a deep breath — probably many deep breaths — and you showed this country exactly what that Dillard University motto means: you were the living, breathing embodiment of the confidence that comes from faith.
Lifted by the kindness of strangers, sustained by the communities you found you learned what I hope was one of many lessons throughout your life about the amazing grace that brought you safe and finally leads you home.
Back here in New Orleans, President Hughes was doing everything she could to provide that home. Dillard’s campus may have been uninhabitable, but that didn’t stop your President. She worked around the clock, making calls, making plans, making sure all of you were OK.
And when the Spring Semester came, because of her perseverance, Dillard University had a new home — in a Hilton Hotel.
Now, President Hughes and the faculty and the trustees and the stuff did not know whether you would come back. Whether you would be willing to pursue your studies in a temporary campus in a struggling city. She thought maybe 400 or 500 of you would return. But by the time those doors opened in January of 2006, 1,200 of you were ready to walk through. You came back.
You came because you refused to abandon this great American university and this great American city. You came back because you refused to leave behind the friends, the professors, and so many who had become your extended family. You came back because you knew that Dillard is more than the beautiful buildings and the lush green lawns and the majestic oaks — you knew that what makes Dillard special is something no storm, no flood, or fire can ever destroy.
And because you came back, Dillard University came back as well.
You did your jobs — you learned you taught you devoted long hours to serving your community. People and institutions in New Orleans — and across America — they did their jobs too. The non-profits provided desperately-needed services in terrible conditions. The churches reached out to those most in need. Ordinary citizens volunteered donated money opened up their homes and hearts. But unfortunately, the federal government did not do its job. It didn’t hold up its end of the bargain.
Now federal officials did find time to track down students and demand recoupment of money they gave you to survive the storm, but in everything else from emergency response to rebuilding public works to restoring essential services, the federal government failed.
And today, nearly two years later, we still don’t have a reliable hurricane protection system. We still haven’t rebuilt schools, hospitals, firehouses or parks. There are more than 80,000 households living in trailers. And New Orleans is caught in a vicious cycle. Because so many people have left, neighborhoods haven’t recovered. And because neighborhoods haven’t recovered, many people simply cannot come back.
In short, a natural disaster became a national disgrace — and an international embarrassment.
Let me say that again — this is a national disgrace. Anyone who thinks this is a local or regional crisis — anyone who thinks this is about “them,” and not “us” — is sorely mistaken. Think about how all Americans benefit from the commerce that goes through this city’s port. How all of us benefit from the oil and gas produced off your shores. All of us have been enriched by the culture and legacy of this city. And when our fellow citizens hurt — all of us hurt. Whether in Oklahoma City or New York City or New Orleans — when Americans our fellow citizens suffer — all of us suffer.
Today, I want to be very clear: rebuilding this city is not a New Orleans obligation or a Louisiana obligation — it is an American obligation. And I want to spend a few minutes with you today talking about that obligation. And how we finally begin to fulfill it.
Now, as a Senator from New York after September 11, I know what it’s like to stand in the aftermath of destruction so great, you can barely comprehend it, and to wonder where to even begin and whether you’ll ever fully recover. But I also know about the kind of love for a city that makes you determined to not just restore what you’ve lost — but to create something stronger, more beautiful, and more lasting.
I also know a thing or two about what you don’t need as you try to move forward. You don’t need more empty promises. You don’t need more talk. You don’t need more bureaucracy. If talk and bureaucracy and promises were enough, we’d have rebuilt New Orleans three times over by now.
What we do need is action. Action supported by our federal government, but driven right here in New Orleans and in the surrounding parishes. by the people who understand the reality on the ground. Action that leads to real, measurable improvements. Not six months from now, or a year from now — but right now.
The question is, where do we begin? How do we stop talking the talk and start walking the walk? Well, I think we need a comprehensive approach — one where the federal government responds to what our state and local leaders and residents are telling them from the point of living and working in the area. I want to commend groups like women of the storm, and by the way, I fully support their proposal to hold a debate right here in New Orleans in the fall of 2007. My good friend and colleague, Mary Landrieu, has been a passionate voice and an effective leader for Louisiana, and I have learned a great deal from her during this time. I support her coastal restoration plan. My proposals in this area build on her work, and the work of other leaders from this state and region.
My approach starts with putting one person, one accountable person in charge of recovery efforts and giving that person the authority he or she needs to do that job. Right now, the federal government’s Gulf Coast rebuilding office is buried in bureaucracy at the Department of Homeland Security. Instead, there should be a Federal Recovery Director who sits in the West Wing and reports directly to the President every single week about what is happening to the people who are still suffering. And the Director’s first order of business should be to reach out to every community affected and figure out exactly what they need and how the federal government can help. I don’t think that communities should have to go to the federal government to beg for help — the federal government should come to them.
Second, let’s get federal money where it’s needed right now. Enough with the red tape. Enough with the paperwork. Right now, communities are required to match a percentage of the funds they receive from FEMA. But we know that many simply can’t afford it. When you hear people in Washington talking about all the money that’s been appropriated for Louisiana, stop and ask yourself how much of that money has actually been delivered to the people of Louisiana.
So let’s do for New Orleans and the surrounding parishes what was done for New York after 9/11. Waive the rule requiring matching funds to get federal money for infrastructure improvements. And, let’s create a user-friendly, flexible, streamlined process to get funding for public works projects. Here’s one of the things that drives people crazy, they’re trying to get flood money through a program called a program called Community Development Block Grant to service the mass to get the money from FEMA, you have to get the environmental assessment. Trying to get the money from FEMA, you need to have an environmental assessment. Don’t you think they could talk together and one single environmental assessment, instead of requiring people to spend 40 and 50 thousand dollars to get two assessments? This is the kind bureaucratic nonsense that has stood in the way of rebuilding. And once a community has applied for funds, let’s provide a small amount of money upfront, so you can get started on their project while they’re waiting for approval.
And let’s come together and finally find a way to make the “Road Home” program actually work for the people of Louisiana. I was in the Broadmoor neighborhood yesterday, I met with Mrs. Johnson, a widow, raised six children in her home. Unfortunately she paid fifty thousand dollars to a contractor who turned out to be unscrupulous. And the work done on her home does not meet the standards of the city. So, she is still living in one of the trailers. How many of you have been in one of the FEMA trailers? So, you know how difficult it is. And across the street, Mr. Washington is paralyzed on one side, a retired gentleman trying to save his home. Wondering when he is going to get the help to do the work that he needs to do. It is heartbreaking to see people who are decent hardworking Americans neglected by their government. One of the things we need is more people to help.
Third, let’s create a Gulf Coast Corps of dedicated men and women who would work fulltime to help our communities rebuild. Congressmen Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and other Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are working on a similar idea. I would envision the Corps having two separate parts, one that would provide financial incentives to skilled professionals — teachers, doctors, nurses and others to serve high-need areas.
The other working hand-in-hand with the building trades union would consist of workers and apprentices who would complete priority projects. Many would be local — and many would be able to return to get jobs that paid well,. And you could work with local communities to help restore our fire stations, the hospitals, sewers and so much else.
Fourth, let’s make sure we finally build a reliable hurricane protection system for the city of New Orleans. That starts with a stem-to-stern review of the Army Corps of Engineers’ plans and progress so far in building the levee and pump system. Once we’re certain we’re on the right track, let’s fully fund the construction of this system — and let’s set a deadline so we actually get it done. We also need the Corps initiate a wetlands restoration plan, because we if we don’t build up the wetlands we know we won’t be able to protect the city.
Fifth, let’s expand affordable housing. We know we need to provide more housing. The president showed me the housing she’s already built here on campus, it looks a lot better than trailers. We also need to address the skyrocketing cost of insurance and provide more rental housing.
Next, let’s deal with the rising crime rate, put more police back on the street, fund them with federal dollars. We need to make sure we have 21st century schools for New Orleans. We know there were serious problems before Katrina, and let’s set the goal of making New Orleans schools the best in the country.
Eighth, let’s revitalize the health care system in this city. Reopen hospitals, and let’s rebuild charity hospitals, and make it simple for healthcare patients. We need to address the growing mental health crisis in the city and the area. Let’s promote smart development, clean efficient energy use, “green”: buildings and so much else, so New Orleans is sustainable.
Finally, we have to overhaul our nation’s disaster response system. Lets start by making FEMA independent again, giving it cabinet-level position, where it reports directly to the President.Let’s create a Katrina and Rita Commission modeled on the 9/11 Commission to figure out what went wrong so it will never happen again.
When all is said and done, I know how hard it is to move forward after a tragedy of this magnitude. In a tribute read at a remembrance service for British citizens lost on September 11, Queen Elizabeth wrote that “Grief is the price we pay for love.” I know that today, many still grieve for those we loved and lost. For the homes and business destroyed. For the memories and heritage and history swept away in that storm.
Class of 2007, at a very young age, you have learned the hard truth that there are moments in our lifetime on this earth when, after extraordinary loss, we have no choice but to begin history anew.
I have confidence that we will choose to move forward, choose to rebuild, choose to create a new life and a new life for this great city. And I hope that one day, years from now, you’ll bring your children and grandchildren here, to this city and this campus, you’ll tell them about what you did in facing the great flood, and you will tell them that you love this school too much to leave it behind. I believe that is what we have to tell the people of this country about the people of New Orleans. That we need to love this city too much to not leave it behind.
And that while our government has stumbled, we ultimately found our way. And that out of the sludge and ashes and destruction of this storm, we rebuilt this city — stronger, prouder, more lovely and lasting than ever before. Graduates, on this day, that is my wish for you. That you will live lives that reflect the courage and heroism, the bravery and determination that you have exhibited thus far in your lives. And that is also my hope for Dillard and for New Orleans.
With your talent, your dedication and your hard work, I have every confidence those hopes will be realized.Congratulations again on all you have achieved. You have made your families and all of us so very proud.
Thank you and God speed.