Bush Visits Gulf Coast

In New Orleans, President Bush joined Mayor C. Ray Nagin at a conference on post-hurricane rebuilding.
In New Orleans, President Bush joined Mayor C. Ray Nagin at a conference on post-hurricane rebuilding. "New Orleans is reminding me of the city I used to visit," the president said. (By Evan Vucci -- Associated Press)
By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 13, 2006

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss., Jan. 12 -- President Bush made his first trip in three months to the storm-battered Gulf Coast on Thursday, reassuring residents that his administration is following through on his vow to help rebuild the shattered region.

Despite the rampant devastation still evident, Bush said that steady progress has been made since Hurricane Katrina ravaged much of the area in late August.

"We've come a long way in four months," Bush said during remarks at St. Stanislaus College here. ". . . Four months is not all that long, and a lot's happened in that four-month period. And a lot more is going to happen in the next four months, and then the next four months."

This small city, which sits on the Gulf of Mexico, remains shattered. Huge piles of debris are stacked in front of some homes and businesses, while other buildings remain flattened, apparently untouched since they were smashed by the storm. Still, other businesses are returning to operation and many people are rebuilding their homes.

In his remarks, Bush said that during earlier visits in Katrina's immediate aftermath he could sense desperation and "deep, deep concern" among storm victims. That feeling, he said, has been replaced by "a sense of optimism, a hope, a little bounce in people's step."

Acknowledging that monumental challenges remain, Bush said that the federal government has already spent $25 billion on recovery efforts. Much of that money went to rescue efforts and to providing emergency housing and trailers to storm victims. Another $60 billion in federal money remains to be spent, he said.

Despite the huge federal investment, Bush said that the recovery from Katrina would be led by private businesses, not the federal government. Bush touted tax breaks intended to create incentives to invest in the devastated region as an important tool in rebuilding.

Earlier in the day, Bush made a brief stop in New Orleans, where he met with Mayor C. Ray Nagin and small-business owners. While his motorcade passed little of the devastation in the city, much of New Orleans remains in desperate condition.

Small placards advertising house gutting or mold removal business litter much of the city. Many traffic signals do not work, many businesses abandoned and shuttered, and only about a quarter of the city's more than 400,000 residents have returned.

Also, many New Orleans residents are angry about a proposed recovery plan that would place a four-month rebuilding moratorium on most of the city, while leaving open the racially-explosive question of whether the city's most storm-vulnerable -- and poorest -- communities will be rebuilt.

During his visit there, however, Bush chose to focus on the positive, saying that he can see remarkable progress, even amid the lingering destruction.

"I will tell you, the contrast between when I was last here and today . . . is pretty dramatic," Bush said. "It may be hard for you to see, but from when I first came here to today, New Orleans is reminding me of the city I used to visit."

In December, the Bush administration pledged an additional $1.5 billion in federal spending to strengthen New Orleans's storm-battered levees, vowing to give the city "better and safer" flood-protection walls but stopping short of explicitly promising protection against catastrophic Category 5 hurricanes.

The proposal doubled the White House's previous $1.6 billion commitment for levee repairs and matched the request of Louisiana officials. But Congress has diverted $1.4 billion of that money to other storm recovery efforts, money Bush said should be spent on fortifying the levees.

Bush's optimism about the pace of the recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast stood in sharp contrast to the observations of civil rights leaders and others, who have complained about the federal government's efforts, particularly in predominantly black and largely poor New Orleans.

The Small Business Administration, for example, has rejected more than 70 percent of the loan applications from storm victims, many of whom are poor credit risks. Bush, however, said the agency has been overwhelmed by the flood of loan applications. He said the agency has provided $2.6 billion in low-interest disaster loans to nearly 40,000 homeowners, renters and small businesses.

Bush, meanwhile, has spent relatively little time meeting with the victims of the flooding and touring the devastation in New Orleans. His visits there are often confined to meetings with political and business leaders.

Still, Bush said that the city is on the rebound. "It's a heck of a place to bring your family," he said. "It's a great place to find some of the greatest food in the world and some wonderful fun."

Before returning to Washington, Bush planned to attend a Republican National Committee fundraiser at the oceanfront estate of Dwight C. Schar in Palm Beach, Fla. Schar is the chief executive of NVR Inc., a major home builder and mortgage banking company, and he is a co-owner of the Washington Redskins. The event was expected to raise $4 million.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company