A Year After Katrina

The President and His Critics Mark Anniversary Along Coast

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 29, 2006

BILOXI, Miss., Aug. 28 -- A year after Hurricane Katrina devastated Mississippi and Louisiana, President Bush and Democratic leaders are converging on the Gulf Coast this week to commemorate the losses while continuing the political argument over the federal response to the country's largest natural disaster.

Arriving Monday in this seaside city for the first stop of a two-day visit that later took him to New Orleans, Bush paid homage to the grit of ordinary Mississippians in their efforts to rebuild their communities and promised that his administration will not neglect them as memories of the storm fade.

"One year doesn't mean that we'll forget," Bush said after lunching on fried shrimp and gumbo with community and state leaders at the small Ole Biloxi Schooner restaurant. "Now is the time to renew our commitment to let the people down here know that we will stay involved and help the people of Mississippi rebuild their lives."

In returning to scenes of one of his administration's biggest political embarrassments, Bush visited a city that remains a shell of its former self. Much of the debris has been removed and casinos are starting to sprout along Biloxi's waterfront, but empty lots abound, thousands of displaced people continue to live in trailers, and federal money is only beginning to trickle down to individuals and businesses, according to local leaders.

Democratic lawmakers and liberal advocacy groups flocked to the Gulf Coast in Bush's wake to offer their own, vastly more critical assessments of how well Bush and the federal government have performed in rebuilding communities swamped by Katrina.

In an interview, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast is going "not very well," and asserted that federal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration are botching the delivery of federal funds to individuals and small enterprises. "Yes, the recovery is underway," she said. "It is still painfully slow. We have unnecessarily lost so much because the system is overburdened."

Landrieu has been joined by Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) for parts of what she has termed a "Hope and Recovery" tour for the region.

Another prominent Democrat, Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), inspected damaged sections of New Orleans along with other lawmakers on Monday, and predicted that Americans will be "very surprised to know this recovery is way, way behind what their expectations would have been."

The administration's halting initial response to Katrina, especially in Louisiana, was a political debacle that even some Bush supporters believe still burdens the White House. Mindful of the symbolism of the one-year hurricane anniversary, White House aides have been distributing fact sheets and statistics suggesting progress, including the more than $110 billion of federal money that has been set aside by Congress for Gulf Coast assistance and reconstruction.

Less than half of that has actually been spent, however, and local officials in Mississippi and Louisiana have been complaining about red tape slowing the flow of funds for housing and small businesses.

Tommy Longo, the mayor of Waveland, another hard-hit town on Mississippi's Gulf Coast, said he does not blame Bush for the delay and is unsure who is at fault.

"I don't think the money is held up in Washington -- it is held up somewhere in between," said Longo, as he awaited Bush's appearance in Biloxi.

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