Bush Says Gulf Coast Isn't Forgotten

Marchers cross a bridge over the Industrial Canal in New Orleans during a remembrance Wednesday of the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Marchers cross a bridge over the Industrial Canal in New Orleans during a remembrance Wednesday of the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. (By Alex Brandon -- Associated Press)
By Michael Abramowitz and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 30, 2007

NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 29 -- President Bush marked the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by trying to reassure the people of the Gulf Coast that they are not forgotten, declaring that "the town is coming back" at an appearance Wednesday in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward.

But the president appeared on the defensive as he was forced to contend with cynicism in the region about his administration and with a barrage of criticism from Democrats that the administration had not done enough to help speed the area's recovery from the storm's destruction.

"I come telling the folks in this part of the world that we still understand there's problems and we're still engaged," Bush said in his remarks at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School, one of several such schools to spring up in the area since the storm. Bush, on his 15th trip to the region since Katrina struck, spoke after marking a moment of silence at 9:38 a.m. local time, the moment the levees were breached, flooding about 80 percent of the city.

Two weeks after the hurricane made landfall, Bush stood in historic Jackson Square and promised to rebuild the region with "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen." Since then, things have moved slowly despite huge allocations of money. The federal government has set aside $114 billion for storm recovery and has repaired 220 miles of levees and floodwalls. The Bush administration is also seeking additional money to make the storm-protection system stronger than it was before Katrina, a task that is slated to be completed by 2011.

Still, only two-thirds of the pre-Katrina population of New Orleans has returned to the city, and storm damage remains visible. Only 40 percent of the city's public school students have returned, although sales tax receipts have climbed to 84 percent of pre-storm levels, according to a new Brookings Institution report.

The Louisiana-run Road Home program, which provides rebuilding grants to homeowners who had inadequate storm insurance, has sent checks to 44,000 hurricane victims, despite having received more than 184,000 applications and having billions of dollars in the bank.

While his reception among city leaders was certainly polite -- he dined Tuesday with Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D), New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and other notables -- there was also an unmistakable frustration about federal red tape, inadequate funding and a sense of having been forgotten by the administration. Even in the handpicked audience for the president's Wednesday morning school appearance, some voiced skepticism mixed in with gratitude for Bush's show of support.

"He has not done a good job. He has made promises -- and he has not kept them" said Thelma Ruth, 72, a retired schoolteacher who was forced to move to Baton Rouge for eight months before moving back to a home in the Broadmoor neighborhood.

"I thought they were going to put enough money into the city to recover," said her seatmate, George Rabb, an accountant and insurance consultant who lives in the Uptown neighborhood. "I didn't think we were going to be abandoned."

More than 1,600 people died in the storm along the Gulf Coast and 1.5 million people were scattered. Almost as much as the war in Iraq, the government's handling of Katrina has helped sour not only Louisianans, but also Americans more generally, on the Bush presidency.

As the president traveled by motorcade and helicopter through the region, he welcomed a New Orleans bus driver to a new house that replaced one she lost and cited a newly rebuilt bridge along the Mississippi coast. But he also saw the continued scenes of devastation and abandonment that have made his administration radioactive in many quarters here -- from the hundreds of boarded-up houses of the Ninth Ward to still-vacant stretches of the Mississippi coastline.

Bush's advisers, meanwhile, engaged in an active damage-control campaign this week, pushing back hard at the torrent of new criticism from the Democratic presidential contenders, Gulf Coast politicians and others -- all of whom used the anniversary of Katrina to renew complaints that the longer-term federal recovery effort has been botched almost as badly as the initial response to the hurricane.

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