Bush Dines With Queen of Creole
Wednesday, August 29, 2007; 2:27 AM
NEW ORLEANS -- President Bush said Tuesday he wanted to celebrate the spirit of New Orleans. He chose to do so with Leah Chase, considered this proud, still-struggling city's Queen of Creole, known as much for her famous cooking as her warm personality.
The president and his wife, Laura, dined with about two dozen others at her restaurant, Dooky Chase, a landmark eatery that was once a gathering place for civil rights leaders and has become famous for traditional Creole cooking. Around the large square table with Bush, federal, state and local officials mixed with athletes, artists, developers and others.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees was at the table, as was musician Irvin Mayfield, for a long list of dishes such as crab soup, grilled redfish, shrimp Clemenceau, chicken with oyster dressing and jambalaya.
Bush called them all "quiet heroes who have helped bring optimism and hope to New Orleans" after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina two years ago Wednesday. He saluted Chase and her husband, Dooky Chase II, who have renovated the restaurant with its elegant dining rooms, impressive art collection and brilliantly colored walls and plan to finally reopen from the storm's damage in a couple of weeks.
"I know you would want me to say that the food here is about as good as anyplace here in New Orleans," Bush said. "I will say it."
The president and his wife are to spend Wednesday's anniversary at a New Orleans charter school and a community center down the Gulf Coast in Bay St. Louis, Miss. It is Bush's 15th visit to the region since the storm but only his second since last year's anniversary, as the issue has moved further off the president's radar.
The federal government's dismal performance in the immediate aftermath of the storm _ and some residents' lingering sense of abandonment since _ severely dented Bush's image as a take-charge leader.
So, as on other visits, Bush and his team came here armed with a raft of facts and figures about how much his administration has done to fulfill his Jackson Square promise to "do what it takes" to rebuild New Orleans.
"The president continues to follow through on his commitment to help local citizens rebuild their lives," said Bush spokesman Scott Stanzel.
The storm killed more than 1,600 people along the Gulf Coast, decimating the Mississippi shoreline and flooding nearly 80 percent of New Orleans.
Two years later, huge swaths of the city remain in shambles, with businesses shuttered and houses abandoned and bureaucracy choking federal and state assistance.
The city's population continues to grow. Sales tax revenues are approaching normal. But unemployment is stubbornly high. Schools and hospitals have not reopened to keep pace and neither has crime prevention. New Orleans levees still are not ready for the next big storm.
Bush's Gulf Coast rebuilding chief, Don Powell, noted the federal government has committed a total of $114 billion in aid to the region, $96 billion of which is already disbursed or available to local governments. The implied criticism is that it is local officials' fault if that money has not reached citizens.
Powell also said the president intends to ask for $7.5 billion more _ for a total of $15 billion _ to strengthen New Orleans' levee system to withstand a 100-year storm and improve the area's drainage system. Levees, he said, are undeniably and solely a federal responsibility.
But he said that other areas _ such as infrastructure repair and home rebuilding _ are shared responsibilities with local officials or entirely the purview of state and local governments.
The federally funded, state administered Road Home program, created to help people rebuild their homes, is a particularly sore subject.
Fewer than 40,000 Louisiana have received grants, out of more than 180,000 applications. And federal, state and local government officials discovered only recently that insurance shortfalls means they won't have enough money to go around.