NEW ORLEANS — President Bush commemorated Hurricane Katrina’s devastating blow Wednesday with a somber moment of silence. Across town, in a symbol of a federal-city divide that persists two years after the killer storm, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin marked the levee-breach moment with bell-ringing.
“We’re still paying attention. We understand,” Bush said in remarks afterward.
The president and his wife, Laura, spent Wednesday’s anniversary in New Orleans and Bay St. Louis, Miss., determined to celebrate those he said have “dedicated their lives to the renewal” of the region. But with New Orleans and the Gulf Coast far from their former selves after two years, some here think it’s the president’s dedication that should be in the spotlight.
In Mississippi, Bush was positioned so that the rebuilding of the U.S. Highway 90 bridge over the Bay of St. Louis was in the camera shots. The two-mile bridge was destroyed by the hurricane, causing a 45-minute trip for anyone wanting to get from Bay St. Louis to Pass Christian to the east. Two lanes were opened in May and the other two are scheduled to be completed in November. Bush cited the bridge as an example of Mississippi’s recovery.
“There’s still obstacles, and there’s still work to be done,” the president said. “But there’s been a lot of progress made, and that’s what people have got to understand. And I have come to this site — what we call Ground Zero, this is where the worst of the worst of the storm hit — to be able to show the American people that through their generosity, this infrastructure has been rebuilt.”
He said Mississippi had reopened virtually every public school and moved 31,000 families out of temporary housing into permanent homes.
The front page of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans advertised a scathing editorial above the masthead: “Treat us fairly, Mr. President.” It chided the Bush administration for giving Republican-dominated Mississippi a share of federal money disproportionate to the lesser impact the storm had there than in largely Democratic Louisiana. “We ought to get no less help from our government than any other victims of this disaster,” it said.
15th Katrina visit
It is the president’s 15th visit to the Gulf Coast since the massive hurricane obliterated coastal Mississippi, inundated most of the Big Easy with floodwaters and killed 1,600 people in Louisiana and Mississippi when it roared onto land the morning of Aug. 29, 2005 — but only his second stop in these parts since last year’s anniversary.
Like his last three visits to New Orleans, including the one-year anniversary, the president chose a charter school as his main backdrop. This time, it was the Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School for Math and Science, where Bush combined hurricane comfort with a favorite and controversial subject: the need for competition and choice in public schooling.
“This town’s coming back,” he said after visiting with educators and students at the school in the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward. “This town is better today than it was yesterday and it’s going to be better tomorrow than it is today.”
The performance by the president and the federal government 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.
“If George Bush’s government were as good and decent and focused as the people of New Orleans, whole parts of the city would not still look like the storm just hit. This is a national disgrace,” said Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, who launched his campaign last year from the devastated Ninth Ward.
As on other visits, the president and his team arrived here armed with facts and figures to show how much the Bush administration has done to fulfill the promises the president made two-and-a-half weeks after 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,” Bush said then from historic Jackson Square in New Orleans’ French Quarter. “This great city will rise again.”
Progress but also obstacles
In fact, there is some good news here. The city’s population is rebounding, and a few neighborhoods thrive. New Orleans has recovered much of its economic base and sales tax revenues are approaching normal. The French Quarter survived Katrina, and the music and restaurant scenes are recovering.
But much of New Orleans still looks like a wasteland, with businesses shuttered and houses abandoned. Basic services like schools, libraries, public transportation and childcare are at half their original levels and only two-thirds of the region’s licensed hospitals are open. Rental properties are in severely short supply, driving rents for those that are available way up. Crime is rampant and police operate out of trailers.
Along Mississippi’s 70-mile shoreline, harsh economic realities also are hampering rebuilding.
Many projects are hamstrung by the soaring costs of construction and insurance, while federal funding has been slow to flow to cities. Other economic indicators are down — such as population, employment and housing supplies.
Bush’s Gulf Coast rebuilding chief, Don Powell, noted the federal government has committed a total of $114 billion to the region, $96 billion of which is already disbursed or available to local governments. Most of it has been for disaster relief, not long-term recovery. He implied it is local officials’ fault, particularly in Louisiana where the pace has been slower, if money has not reached citizens.
Powell also said the president intends to ask for the approximately $5 billion federal share of the $7.6 billion more needed to strengthen New Orleans’ levee system to withstand a 100-year storm and improve the area’s drainage system. Though the levees are not yet ready for the next massive storm, they are slated to be strengthened by 2011.
But Powell said other areas — such as infrastructure repair and home rebuilding — are shared responsibilities with local officials or entirely the purview of state and local governments, suggesting that the federal government is absolved when those things don’t happen.
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