By JENNIFER LOVEN
The Associated Press
Wednesday, January 24, 2007; 7:57 AM
WASHINGTON -- New Orleans is still a mess and the pace of recovery across the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Katrina's strike remains achingly slow after 17 months. But none of this captured President Bush's attention on the year's biggest night for showcasing policy priorities.
In the president's State of the Union speech last year, delivered just five months after the disaster, the devastation merited only 156 words out of more than 5,400.
On Tuesday night, the president spoke for almost exactly as long before a joint session of Congress. But Katrina received not a single mention.
By contrast, in the days ahead of the president's address, Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia compared the U.S. money being spent on Iraqi reconstruction with the fraction committed to the Gulf Coast rebuilding. And, chosen to give the Democratic response to Bush on Tuesday, Webb brought up the continuing struggle of Katrina victims right away, listing "restoring the vitality of New Orleans" just behind education and health care among his party's most pressing priorities, according to the text of his speech distributed in advance.
The disaster did rate one representative with a good seat for Bush's speech.
Craig Cuccia, co-founder of Reconcile New Orleans, was one of two dozen guests seated in first lady Laura Bush's box above the House chamber. Cuccia's nonprofit youth organization helps get kids off the streets and into the hospitality industry by giving them jobs and training at its Cafe Reconcile located in Central City, one of New Orleans' toughest neighborhoods.
Spared Katrina's widespread flooding, the restaurant was among the city's first businesses to reopen its doors and served emergency workers, first responders, construction crews and returning residents.
But Cuccia's presence at the State of the Union address had as much or more to do with Mrs. Bush's drive to help at-risk youth, particularly boys, stay out of gangs and other trouble. The first lady extended the invitation after meeting Cuccia on a visit to the cafe earlier this month.
Katrina's relative absence from the president's public radar screen is not new.
Seeking to recover from criticism of his initial reaction to the storm, the president focused intensively on the Gulf Coast in the weeks and months after Katrina hit. But that attention level quickly dropped off, and he hardly mentions the region now. His only visit there in the last eight months was to mark one year since the storm's strike in August.
"This anniversary is not an end. And so I come back to say that we will stand with the people of southern Louisiana and southern Mississippi until the job is done," he pledged then.