Surrounded by evidence of the incomplete recovery from Hurricane Katrina, President Bush on Thursday tried to calm fears across the Gulf Coast that another monster storm could be lurking in the upcoming hurricane season.
“If there is one, the response will be as effective as possible,” said Bush, whose administration has been faulted for a flawed response to Katrina that exacerbated the hurricane’s destruction.
Sensitive to voters’ anger over soaring gasoline prices, Bush also said he wants Congress to give the Transportation Department the power to increase auto fuel economy standards — an idea proposed in an energy plan by Senate Republicans. The department already has such authority over small trucks.
The 2006 hurricane season begins June 1, and the president said his administration is working with local officials to make sure communications are clearer and supplies are effectively positioned in advance.
Don Powell, Bush’s liaison to hurricane relief efforts, said the restoration of New Orleans’ levees to their pre-Katrina condition is expected to be completed by June 1.
Eleventh time visiting Gulf Coast
Bush’s comments, on his 11th visit to the Gulf Coast since Katrina struck in August, came as a seven-month Senate inquiry indicated the United States still was woefully unprepared for a storm of that scope. The Senate review followed a House investigation that was similarly critical of Bush and other top federal officials, and milder White House conclusions that blamed the Homeland Security Department for most of the breakdowns.
“We are far better prepared today than we were this time last year,” said Frances Fragos Townsend, Bush’s homeland security adviser. “And we will be far better prepared by June 1.”
The president said, “All of us in positions of responsibility appreciate those who are helping us to understand how to do our jobs better.”
Bush’s trip to still-devastated Louisiana and Mississippi was intended to encourage volunteers to pitch in on the massive reconstruction effort.
In New Orleans, the president stopped at a modest bungalow being restored by volunteers in the Ninth Ward, one of the city’s majority-black neighborhoods that endured the storm’s brunt and remain largely uninhabitable.
The street was piled high in places with trash. Yards were overgrown with weeds. White government trailers that are the main housing for the displaced sat in many front yards.
With less half of the New Orleans pre-storm population back, few residents were evident. The president’s motorcade parked in front of one of the city’s many shuttered schools.
Bush views rebuilding process
Ethel Williams, the owner of the single-story green and white duplex, thanked those who are gutting her house so she can return to her home from Texas, where she fled during the storm.
“I’m proud that you’re here, Mr. President, and I won’t ever forget you,” she said, her arm around Bush’s waist. The high-water mark from Katrina’s flooding was visible behind her, about one-third of the way up her home’s single story.
Bush said, “If you’re interested in helping the victims of Katrina, interested in helping them get back on their feet, come on down here.”
From Williams’ home, Bush went to a nearby large vacant lot where Habitat for Humanity is building 81 new homes, several feet off the ground for protection against future floods, for New Orleans musicians.
Casual jokes with Nagin
Bush, wearing casual blue pants and checked shirt, put on work gloves and a carpenter’s apron as he wandered around the construction site and chatted with workers. The president, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin helped raise roof frames onto one house.
Bush and Nagin traded jokes as they pounded nails into the frame. “I got a few people I’d like to hit,” quipped Nagin, who faces a runoff election next month against a fellow Democrat, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, in his bid for another term.
Later, in Biloxi, Miss., the president visited a base camp that houses and deploys volunteers to projects around the community from a Methodist church.
He sat around a table nodding approvingly at volunteers who had come from all over the country, and checked their organic farming and pet-rescue efforts. Bush posed for pictures with several dozen people who have been living in a church balcony and a tent city outside.
“Character-building,” commented Bush.
Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, killing more than 1,300 people, leaving hundreds of thousands of homeless and causing tens of billions of dollars in damage. The government’s lagging help for disaster victims has contributed to a persistent second-term slump for Bush.