President Bush, summoning the American spirit and "a faith in God no storm can take away," vowed from the heart of the Hurricane Katrina disaster zone Thursday night to rebuild this devastated city and the rest of the Gulf Coast with "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen."
In a prime-time address televised from the storm-battered French Quarter, the president appeared without coat and tie to mourn "a tragedy that seems so blind and random" while promising to help its victims with unprecedented federal assistance to secure homes, jobs, health care and schooling.
"You need to know," he said, directly addressing the dislocated and desperate, "that our whole nation cares about you, and in the journey ahead you're not alone. . . . And tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives."
Although Bush cited no price tag, he committed the nation to a plan that officials and lawmakers believe could top $200 billion, roughly the cost of the Iraq war and reconstruction, and which promises to reorient government for the balance of the Bush presidency. It will create much larger deficits in the short term, siphon off money that would have been spent on other programs and dramatically shift the focus of the White House, Congress and many state governments for the indefinite future.
Even as he embraced a spending program the scale of which few Democratic presidents ever advanced, Bush signaled that he would shape its contours with policy ideas long sought by conservative thinkers. He proposed creation of a "Gulf Opportunity Zone" that would grant new and existing businesses tax breaks, loans and loan guarantees through 2007. And in documents released before the speech, Bush called for displaced families that send children to private schools, including religious ones, to be eligible for federal money.
Eighteen days after Katrina smashed through the levees here, flooding the city, killing hundreds and displacing more than 1 million, Bush endorsed most of the criticism of the government's stutter-start response to the storm and vowed to investigate and retool its emergency plans, calling in particular for "a broader role for the armed forces" in future domestic crises. He ordered his Cabinet to reexamine disaster plans for every major American city. But he seemed to embrace a Republican plan for a GOP-majority congressional inquiry rather than the independent commission sought by Democrats.
During his 26-minute speech, the president evoked the horror that Katrina wrought on the region, recalling scenes of the abandoned seeking food and water, survivors victimized a second time by looters, and "bodies of the dead lying uncovered and untended in the street." Bush likened Katrina to the worst disasters of American history, including the Chicago fire of 1871 and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. "Every time the people of this land have come back from fire, flood and storm to build anew -- and to build better than what we had before," he said. "Americans have never left our destiny to the whims of nature, and we will not start now."
Harking back to the "compassionate conservative" rhetoric of his early presidency, Bush infused his address with religious overtones. The trials of the last few weeks, he said, "remind us of a hope beyond all pain and death, a God who welcomes the lost to a house not made with his hands." The language reflected not only Bush's own faith but also his decision to bring back Michael J. Gerson, his first-term speechwriter and now a policy adviser, to help draft perhaps his most important address since launching the Iraq war in 2003.
Biblical citations and imagery are common touchstones for the president when he tries to connect with African Americans, who polls show have been especially aggrieved by the slow federal response because the victims left behind were disproportionately poor and black. "As all of us saw on television," Bush said, "there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action."
Bush spoke from Jackson Square, where a towering statute of Andrew Jackson is one of the few local icons left unscathed in the Big Easy. The buildings surrounding the square are boarded up and lifeless; a metal telephone pole across the street is split like small stick, a testament to Katrina's fury. The historic square commemorates the French handover of Louisiana in 1803; now, 202 years later, it marks the spot where Bush promised to rebuild the heart of Louisiana.
"There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again," Bush said. Eventually, he added, "the streetcars will once again rumble down St. Charles and the passionate soul of a great city will return."
The speech came at perhaps the most difficult political moment of Bush's presidency, with Americans losing faith in his ability to manage crisis and lead the nation out of troubled times, according to polls. His approval ratings have dropped to new lows in the past few days as gasoline prices have soared and chaos in Iraq persists. The speech capped a week-long effort to restore Bush's standing, starting with the ousting of the Federal Emergency Management Agency director, who oversaw the initial response, and a rare public embrace of responsibility for its shortcomings.
Sensitive to fueling further criticism, the White House said it paid for the electricity and lights used for the speech, limiting the local inconvenience. But Bush emerged onto the square without an audience, speaking directly into the camera from a lectern placed so the Jackson statue would be in the picture.
Congressional Democrats did not wait for the speech to lay down markers for how they think the Gulf Coast should be rebuilt -- and to lay the blame on Bush for Washington's sluggish performance.
"The families in the Gulf . . . certainly don't need to hear another speech from President Bush," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "What they need is leadership. . . . Let's be clear about what Katrina was: a failure of leadership." Reid called for "an American Marshall Plan" to rebuild the Gulf Coast and accused Republicans of balking at even greater spending on health, housing and education for victims.
Reid insisted on an independent commission to investigate what went wrong with Katrina. But Republicans rejected that.
The House adopted a plan for a joint investigative committee that would have a Republican majority but grant Democrats authority to call witnesses and seek subpoenas from the GOP chairman. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) was tapped Thursday to serve as co-chairman along with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). Davis said Thursday night that among the first witnesses he will call will be Michael D. Brown, the FEMA director who resigned this week under fire.
Moving to expand the $62 billion in relief already approved for the Gulf Coast, the House and Senate on Thursday passed similar tax bills estimated to cost at least $5 billion over five years to allow storm victims to draw funds from retirement accounts without penalty and to extend several housing, job and child tax credits through the disruption. The legislation also offers charitable giving incentives while easing taxes on forgiven debts and unreimbursed business losses.
In deference to local sensibilities, Bush made clear that local officials will dictate how the city is reconstructed, and that a chief aim will be to lure those who fled New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities to return rather than relocate permanently to the places where they sought refuge. At the same time, he suggested that local authorities would have to revisit zoning laws and building codes "to avoid a repeat of what we've seen" and suggested that sections of New Orleans be rebuilt on "higher ground."
Bush called on Congress to provide property on the federal domain free of charge though a lottery. In exchange, a recipient would be obligated to build a home with a mortgage or help from a charitable organization. He also proposed creation of "worker recovery accounts" of up to $5,000 for evacuees to use for job training, education and child care.
Bush arrived here after an earlier stop in Pascagoula, Miss. The New Orleans he found is a twisted shell of its former self, a once vibrant city that never slept left lifeless by Katrina's fury. Streets remain flooded, piles of garbage line them, and a stench seems to cling to every part of the French Quarter and beyond.
Vickie Johnston, 37, a hairdresser, sneaked into the city Thursday only to learn she had lost everything -- her clothes, furniture, and irreplaceables such as correspondence and photos. She voted for Bush twice but feels betrayed by all government. "They knew New Orleans was a fishbowl. They knew," she said. "Now it's a toilet bowl. How can they do this to us? Why did they let the water get so high?"
In his speech hours later, Bush expressed understanding of such sentiments, acknowledging that the response "at every level of government was not well coordinated and was overwhelmed in the first few days." The lesson he saw was the need for "greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces, the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice."
As he did on Tuesday, Bush said he accepts accountability: "Four years after the frightening experience of September 11th, Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency. When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I as president am responsible for the problem, and for the solution."
Baker reported from Washington. Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu in Washington contributed to this report.