President Bush returned Monday to the first scene he saw a year ago of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, and declared “a sense of renewal” in the region still struggling to come back from the storm’s battering.
“Amazing what the world looked like then and what it looks like now,” Bush said, marveling at the air conditioning and electrical service in the newly constructed home visible behind him. “People can’t imagine what the world looked like then.”
When Bush first saw the neighborhood, it was littered by debris of all sizes, cars in trees and homes battered to bits.
Bush said “there’s still challenges.” Other parts of the neighborhood, which is only rebuilt in patches, and a woman he consoled on a trip here last year, demonstrated just that. Sought out by the White House to meet Bush again, she said before his remarks that she has come far — but not far enough.
Then, Bronwynne Bassier had returned from Alabama, clutching trash bags, to search the rubble of her former home for clothes for her young son. Sobbing uncontrollably, she told Bush she had lost everything.
On Monday, newly married and now Bronwynne Lesso, she said her old house has been demolished to a concrete slab, she lives in a FEMA trailer with her husband and 3-year-old, and is still trying to figure out how to get a job and whether she can rebuild.
“When they take the FEMA trailers away, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said in an interview.
Bush escapes blame
Still, like many in Mississippi, where the response and rebuilding effort has gone better than in Louisiana, Lesso doesn’t blame Bush.
“One year later, he hasn’t forgotten about us,” she said.
Bush came to Mississippi, the first day of a two-day Gulf Coast visit to mark the one-year anniversary of the hurricane that still haunts his presidency. It was his 13th journey to the region, and his first in three months.
His travels were shadowed by worries that a new tropical storm could bring the first test of his promise that the botched post-Katrina response will not be repeated.
Tropical Storm Ernesto cut a path through the Caribbean and put Florida on emergency footing. Forecasters believe Ernesto will emerge with some force into the Gulf of Mexico later this week.
With Bush’s image as a leader still tarnished by the halting federal response to Katrina, the president wants to make clear he has been fully engaged in planning for Ernesto. Aides noted he was briefed regularly over the weekend.
Progress made, more to be made
Bush said the scene, like many others he saw Monday and Tuesday, was proof that his administration had kept his promise, made in an interview with NBC “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams last December, to "work together to achieve what we all want, which is a Louisiana and a New Orleans that’s a shining light down there, and a Gulf Coast of Mississippi that’s been rebuilt and is vibrant and thriving."
But he acknowledged Monday that there was still a long way to go. New Orleans, which Bush will visit Tuesday, is dry now, but in many of the hardest-hit areas little else has changed; neighborhoods throughout the Lower Ninth Ward remained littered with debris. Bush said it could take a decade for New Orleans to "come back."
Although the president told New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin that the federal government had been "generous" with its funding for reconstruction, Nagin disputed that in an interview with NBC News’ Tamara Kupperman.
"Generous?" Nagin asked. "You know, it’s hard for me to determine because it hasn’t really made it down this way. It goes from the feds to the states and then to the locals. So, we’re still waiting."
Confers at White House
Before leaving the White House Monday, Bush and top federal disaster officials conferred on Ernesto in a briefing led by Federal Emergency Management Agency R. David Paulison. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Florida had not requested federal assistance or support.
A poll earlier this month found two-thirds of Americans still disapprove of the president’s handling of Katrina. Democrats are converging on the Gulf along with Bush, intending to make the case that he and the Republican Party should be held accountable for failing storm victims.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said Bush’s promises of help for Katrina victims and changes to the federal response effort remain largely unfulfilled.
The president’s first stop was lunch at the Biloxi Schooner Seafood Restaurant, owned by Joe Lancon, who recently reopened less than two miles from where Katrina destroyed his two other restaurants. Bush dined on fried shrimp, stuffed crab and gumbo and reassured state and local officials that the federal government would continue to help with the rebuilding.
“I was just commenting upon how clean the beaches were,” the president said at the end of lunch. “That wasn’t a given a year ago. Now they speak to the hope.”
The Mississippi coastline here is much changed from Bush’s last visit, when debris still hung from trees and was stacked in large piles. Some devastated structures remain in extreme disrepair, but the stretch of beachfront property is taken up by vacant lots where gracious antebellum homes once stood, with a few new or being-constructed buildings and little debris in evidence.
Bush didn’t bring any new aid announcements or fresh policy proposals.
Following the money
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.
Don Powell, Bush’s federal Gulf Coast coordinator, also warned in an interview that no more money would flow to the region until there is proof that what has been approved is being spent well.
Bush’s itinerary looks a lot like previous trips, many of them criticized as featuring too much staged contact with supportive locals and overly dominated by meetings with officials. The White House released almost no information on where Bush was visiting until minutes before he was too arrive, in part to lessen cumbersome security needs. But the practice also has the result of further shielding him from more freely interacting with residents.
Bush also was visiting a Gulfport company that builds and repair boats before ending in New Orleans at dinner with state and local officials. On Wednesday, he shifts gears, and is to appear at political fund-raisers in Arkansas and Tennessee..