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.
In an interview with reporters aboard Air Force One this week, the chief of the federal recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast, Don Powell, acknowledged "certain frustrations" about bureaucratic obstacles and the "pace of things." But he added: "I also see a tremendous amount of progress. . . . I see economic vitality in the area. I was down there this past week. It took me 28 minutes to get from the airport to downtown. That's called a traffic jam. You don't have a traffic jam unless there's activity."
Powell cited the billions that the administration and Congress are putting into repairing the levees. "It's dramatic about what kind of protection this will give the people of New Orleans," he said.
In Bush's less than 24 hours on the ground here, his focus also fell on spotlighting the conservative ideas he says will help alleviate poverty and revitalize the Gulf Coast. His visit to one of the many low-achieving public schools that have been reopened as charter schools was one example of this, and he also cited the poverty-stricken public housing units being rebuilt as mixed-income communities, a strategy that officials think will make once-crime-ridden neighborhoods more livable. But that same approach has left many low-income renters nowhere to call home.
As he helped welcome Gen White to her new home in River Garden, which replaced a public housing project, Bush told reporters that "these mixed-use housing projects have replaced old-style low-income housing projects that, frankly, didn't work."
Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, criticized that emphasis this week. "I think the administration had some preconceived notions about using the rebuilding as a laboratory for a lot of their right-wing theories," he said.
For more than a year, the Bush administration resisted calls to drop a regulation that required cash-strapped local governments to match 10 percent of federal aid -- something that had been done after previous disasters, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Bush signed a bill that waived that requirement after congressional Democrats included the provision as part of a war spending bill.
While acknowledging the huge federal outlays devoted to the region, many Democrats continue to fault Bush for not using the bully pulpit of his presidency for making recovery from the storm a more visible and urgent national priority. Bush has also been criticized for not doing enough to cut through the red tape that local officials say has prevented them from tapping federal recovery money.
The administration's initial response to the storm and its rebuilding effort have been fodder for presidential candidates, even some in his own party.
"How do you calculate what it takes to rebuild confidence in a person who has essentially felt that they were abandoned by their own government?" former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R) asked at a forum in New Orleans on Monday.
"Part of the problem, I'll be honest with you, I just don't think there is a sense of urgency in the White House, where the president is cracking the whip, day in, day out, and saying, 'Why is it that we're not getting this done?' " Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said during a visit to New Orleans on Sunday.
"I am frustrated with President Bush, his red tape, and his apparent low regard for the struggle of New Orleans," said Shelley Midura, a member of the City Council. "He has basically handed New Orleans a modest chest of recovery gold that is sealed shut under an elaborate system of locks that help keep his administration's promise of rebuilding from becoming reality."
Fletcher reported from Washington. Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. in Washington contributed to this report.