Bush Pledges Historic Effort To Help Gulf Coast Recover

Using an electrical generator to power his television set in the French Quarter, John Wade watches President Bush promise a huge federal undertaking to rebuild the Crescent City, devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Using an electrical generator to power his television set in the French Quarter, John Wade watches President Bush promise a huge federal undertaking to rebuild the Crescent City, devastated by Hurricane Katrina. (By Joe Raedle -- Getty Images)
By Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 16, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 15 -- President Bush, summoning the American spirit and "a faith in God no storm can take away," vowed from the heart of the Hurricane Katrina disaster zone Thursday night to rebuild this devastated city and the rest of the Gulf Coast with "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen."

In a prime-time address televised from the storm-battered French Quarter, the president appeared without coat and tie to mourn "a tragedy that seems so blind and random" while promising to help its victims with unprecedented federal assistance to secure homes, jobs, health care and schooling.

"You need to know," he said, directly addressing the dislocated and desperate, "that our whole nation cares about you, and in the journey ahead you're not alone. . . . And tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives."

Although Bush cited no price tag, he committed the nation to a plan that officials and lawmakers believe could top $200 billion, roughly the cost of the Iraq war and reconstruction, and which promises to reorient government for the balance of the Bush presidency. It will create much larger deficits in the short term, siphon off money that would have been spent on other programs and dramatically shift the focus of the White House, Congress and many state governments for the indefinite future.

Even as he embraced a spending program the scale of which few Democratic presidents ever advanced, Bush signaled that he would shape its contours with policy ideas long sought by conservative thinkers. He proposed creation of a "Gulf Opportunity Zone" that would grant new and existing businesses tax breaks, loans and loan guarantees through 2007. And in documents released before the speech, Bush called for displaced families that send children to private schools, including religious ones, to be eligible for federal money.

Eighteen days after Katrina smashed through the levees here, flooding the city, killing hundreds and displacing more than 1 million, Bush endorsed most of the criticism of the government's stutter-start response to the storm and vowed to investigate and retool its emergency plans, calling in particular for "a broader role for the armed forces" in future domestic crises. He ordered his Cabinet to reexamine disaster plans for every major American city. But he seemed to embrace a Republican plan for a GOP-majority congressional inquiry rather than the independent commission sought by Democrats.

During his 26-minute speech, the president evoked the horror that Katrina wrought on the region, recalling scenes of the abandoned seeking food and water, survivors victimized a second time by looters, and "bodies of the dead lying uncovered and untended in the street." Bush likened Katrina to the worst disasters of American history, including the Chicago fire of 1871 and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. "Every time the people of this land have come back from fire, flood and storm to build anew -- and to build better than what we had before," he said. "Americans have never left our destiny to the whims of nature, and we will not start now."

Harking back to the "compassionate conservative" rhetoric of his early presidency, Bush infused his address with religious overtones. The trials of the last few weeks, he said, "remind us of a hope beyond all pain and death, a God who welcomes the lost to a house not made with his hands." The language reflected not only Bush's own faith but also his decision to bring back Michael J. Gerson, his first-term speechwriter and now a policy adviser, to help draft perhaps his most important address since launching the Iraq war in 2003.

Biblical citations and imagery are common touchstones for the president when he tries to connect with African Americans, who polls show have been especially aggrieved by the slow federal response because the victims left behind were disproportionately poor and black. "As all of us saw on television," Bush said, "there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action."

Bush spoke from Jackson Square, where a towering statute of Andrew Jackson is one of the few local icons left unscathed in the Big Easy. The buildings surrounding the square are boarded up and lifeless; a metal telephone pole across the street is split like small stick, a testament to Katrina's fury. The historic square commemorates the French handover of Louisiana in 1803; now, 202 years later, it marks the spot where Bush promised to rebuild the heart of Louisiana.

"There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again," Bush said. Eventually, he added, "the streetcars will once again rumble down St. Charles and the passionate soul of a great city will return."

The speech came at perhaps the most difficult political moment of Bush's presidency, with Americans losing faith in his ability to manage crisis and lead the nation out of troubled times, according to polls. His approval ratings have dropped to new lows in the past few days as gasoline prices have soared and chaos in Iraq persists. The speech capped a week-long effort to restore Bush's standing, starting with the ousting of the Federal Emergency Management Agency director, who oversaw the initial response, and a rare public embrace of responsibility for its shortcomings.

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