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President Comforts Flood Victims, Encourages Students in Memphis

President Barack Obama greets well wishers upon arrival in Memphis, Tenn., where he met privately with families affected by flooding, and delivered the commencement address at Booker T. Washington High School, May 16, 2011
President Barack Obama greets well wishers upon arrival in Memphis, Tenn., where he met privately with families affected by flooding, and delivered the commencement address at Booker T. Washington High School, May 16, 2011
Laurel Bowman

U.S. President Barack Obama spent time Monday in Memphis, Tennessee, a city hard hit by the recent flooding of the Mississippi River.  He also addressed the graduating class of a local high school, giving students there a send-off to remember.  

Graduating seniors at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee got quite a reward for their achievement:  U.S. President Barack Obama as their commencement speaker.  

“Some people will say that schools like BTW [Booker T. Washington] just aren’t suppose to succeed in America," said President Obama. "You will hear them say the streets are too tough in those neighborhoods, the schools are too broken, the kids don’t stand a chance. We are here today because every one of you stood tall and said, 'Yes we can.'”

The students won a national award and the president’s attendance because of their swift academic turnaround.  New programs have led to a sharp rise in graduation rates over the past few years.  Many of the students live in tough neighborhoods where crime and drug addiction are rampant.

“Yes, you have always been underdogs," said Obama. "Nobody has handed you a thing.  But that also means that whatever you accomplish in life, you will have earned it.”

President Obama’s trip to Memphis Monday also included a closed-door meeting with flood victims and emergency responders to the disaster caused by the rising Mississippi River.  Snow melt and rain have sent a torrent of water down the river, which crested at Memphis last week.  Some low-lying neighborhoods are devastated.

Down river in Louisiana, massive amounts of water are rushing though open floodgates into rural areas, away from the more heavily populated cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans.  

“They are going to do that to save millions of people from the devastation," said Parish President Guy Cormier. "But I don’t care if it’s one person or 25,000 or a million people, when somebody gets affected by something like this, it just tears my heart apart.”

Water from the swollen Mississippi has rushed across what was dry farmland, sweeping up some species of wildlife and unleashing others, like snakes.

Local residents are preparing for the worst.  This man wrapped his house in heavy plastic.  Another homeowner built his own levy.

Whole communities are evacuating.

“She’s doing great, I am doing a little worse I think," said a man.

“This is the house we raised our children in," said a woman. "We would really like to come back to it.”

President Obama’s two-pronged focus Monday allowed him not only to show comfort for the flood victims, but also to draw attention to his education agenda.  

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