NEW ORLEANS — President Bush bowed his head in prayer Tuesday to remember the hundreds who perished in Hurricane Katrina, a disaster that forever changed the Gulf Coast — and his presidency.
Bush and his wife, Laura, lighted candles of remembrance, then slide into the front pew of the triple-spired St. Louis Cathedral, which was left virtually untouched by the fierce winds and high waters that hit the city on Aug. 29, 2005.
At 9:38 a.m. Central time, they knelt for a moment of silence to mark the first breaching of the levees, which were supposed to protect the city from the massive flooding brought on by Katrina.
The church stands in the French Quarter’s Jackson Square, where last year the president declared: “This great city will rise again.” A pastor opened the service with a greeting in which he thanked Bush for his “steadfast support in our recovery.”
Rebirth in New Orleans has begun, but it has been slow-going by all accounts, and Bush is looking to local leaders to design a rebuilding plan that can speed revival.
The president began a national day of remembrance for Hurricane Katrina victims by meeting with Mayor Ray Nagin in a neighborhood where homes are still stained with high-water marks.
As Bush walked into the packed Betsy’s Pancake House in New Orleans, waitress Joyce Labruzzo jokingly asked: “Mr. President, are you going to turn your back on me?”
“No ma’am, not again,” he replied to laughter.
It was a lighthearted moment. But it could have been a metaphor for the Bush administration’s poor response to the storm and the president’s work since to make amends.
“Money is beginning to go out the door so people can rebuild their lives,” Bush said Monday in Biloxi, Miss. “In Louisiana, it’s been a little slower.”
President highlights rebuilding
As he did in Biloxi, Bush was not visiting here to dwell on the disaster, but to highlight the rebuilding.
“My message to the people down here is that we understand there’s more work to be done, and just because a year has passed, the federal government will remember the people,” Bush said in Biloxi. “This is an anniversary, but it doesn’t mean it ends. It’s the beginning of what is going to be a long recovery, but I’m amazed by the opportunity. I’m amazed by the hope that I feel down here.”
First lady Laura Bush said “it takes more than just money.”
“It really takes the efforts of everyone who lived here, who wants to come back, of all public officials, local, state and federal, of other neighbors, other people can figure out a way to help,” she said Tuesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“Was the federal government slow? Sure, probably. Was every government slow, state and local? Sure. But have they responded in a very, very helpful way? I think they have.
“I think we’ll look back on it and we’ll see it for what it was: the largest disaster that our country has ever faced and a huge disaster,” she said. “Could we have done better? Sure, but are we doing what we can now? Absolutely.”
Disapproval over Bush's handling of disaster
Nationally, 67 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush’s handling of the Katrina disaster, according to an AP-Ipsos poll earlier this month. In New Orleans, frustration with the state, local and federal response, however, continues to run as deep-seated here as the poverty exposed by the floodwaters, which forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.
The death toll in Louisiana from Katrina is close to 1,600, including nearly 300 who died in other states after fleeing from the hurricane.
In Jackson Square last year, Bush offered three proposals to help fight poverty. One idea carried out, the Gulf Opportunity Zone, is giving $8.7 billion in tax breaks to developers of low-income housing, small businesses and individuals.
But worker recovery accounts, meant to help victims find work by paying for school, job training and child care, didn’t materialize. Neither did the Urban Homesteading Act that would have given poor people sites to build homes they would finance themselves or get through programs like Habitat for Humanity.
Only half of New Orleans has electricity. Half its hospitals are closed. Violent crime is up. Less than half the population has returned. Tens of thousands of families still live in trailers and mobile homes with no real timetable for moving to more permanent housing. Insurance settlements are mired in red tape. The city still has no master rebuilding plan. And while much debris has been cleared, some remains as if the clock stopped when the storm struck.
So far, Congress has approved $110 billion in hurricane aid. The Bush administration has released $77 billion to the states, reserving the rest for future needs, but $33 billion of that has not yet been spent.
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.