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.
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who accompanied Bush on his visit to Biloxi, said a combination of factors has caused the government to stall. "Part of it is federal bureaucracy," he said. "Part of it is state bureaucracy."
Bush's visit to Mississippi, carefully scripted by the White House, left little possibility of the president encountering much anger over the federal reconstruction efforts. After meeting with Republican Gov. Haley Barbour and other leaders for lunch, Bush toured a working-class east Biloxi neighborhood that he visited a year ago, passing empty lots and FEMA trailers along the way. The hot sun left his blue shirt sleeves soaked in sweat.
Some of the same people he met last year were in a friendly audience of several dozen local residents who heard from Bush after he finished his tour Monday, a few clutching pictures of themselves being consoled by the president in the aftermath of the storm last September. One of them was Patrick Wright, 38, a delivery driver for FedEx whose house was destroyed by the storm and who is now living in a FEMA trailer.
Wright expressed satisfaction with Bush's efforts on behalf of Mississippi, saying that while he was still waiting for federal housing money to begin rebuilding his house, he feels that the government is moving as fast as possible. "Some people say it was slow, but for the number of people affected, you expect it to be slow," said Wright.
In his remarks to Wright and his neighbors, Bush acknowledged "some frustration" among homeowners but said the government is "working hard to make sure that when that money is spent, it's spent well, and it goes to people who deserve it."
Later, speaking to reporters after visiting a shipbuilding enterprise in Gulfport, Bush said it would take "years, not months" for the area to be fully rebuilt, although he did not mention a specific time frame. "The progress in one year's time has been remarkable," Bush said.
Here in Mississippi, the cleanup from Katrina has been judged to be moving somewhat more quickly than in neighboring Louisiana, though there remains a huge reconstruction task and lingering complaints from many locals that New Orleans has drawn the focus of national attention.
Mississippi appears to have benefited from a less fractious political environment than in Louisiana, with Barbour -- a former top lobbyist in Washington -- capitalizing on his extensive ties and the state's power in Congress to leverage extra funds.
Bush himself alluded to the difference between Mississippi and Louisiana in developing reconstruction plans. "In Louisiana, it's been a little slower," he told reporters in Gulfport. "And I look forward to talking to the folks there about what we can do to work together to expedite these plans being implemented."
Political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb in Washington contributed to this report.