President Bush called the anniversary of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina “a moment of great sadness” Tuesday but said it would be the springboard of a great renewal for the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The president acknowledged in an interview airing Tuesday night on “NBC Nightly News” that the government response to the hurricane, which killed more than 1,600 people a year ago, was inadequate. To this day, he said, New Orleans is “still a mess.”
“I think we should have had better coordination with the state and local government,” he told “Nightly News” anchor and Managing Editor Brian Williams. “The enormity of the storm just overwhelmed all aspects of the government.
“I believe had we been better coordinated — communicated better, moved equipment better, coordinated better on who’s responsible for troops — we could have done a better job,” he said.
As he toured a rebuilding site in New Orleans after helping the city remember the catastrophe at a candlelight service in the morning, Bush said bluntly, “I admit that there were failures.”
‘A commitment that means something’
Bush reflected on the sadness he had seen in the last two days marking the anniversary. The people of Louisiana and Mississippi “remember their loved ones. They remember the destruction. They remember the despair,” he said. “But I came to say to people that although a year has gone by, it’s really the beginning of the renewal and rebuilding.”
And he said local communities could count on him to do everything he could to make sure the government did its part. He said his administration had committed to spend $110 billion to rebuild scarred areas, and “$110 billion is a lot of money.”
“When it’s all said and done, the people down here know that I stood in Jackson Square [a year ago] and said, ‘We’re going to help you,’ and we delivered,” he said. “What matters is that we help the good people here rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, and we’re going to do that.
“You know, commitments in politics sometimes mean nothing,” Bush added. “I made a commitment that means something.”
Silence at 9:38 a.m.
Bush spoke with NBC News after he and his wife, Laura, lighted candles of remembrance, then slid into the front pew of St. Louis Cathedral in the untouched French Quarter, which survived Katrina’s cyclonic winds.
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 have protected the city from the massive flooding brought on by Katrina.
Bush was applauded loudly when he promised to ask Congress for legislation that would give Louisiana a bigger share of royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling. The state now receives less than 2 percent of the royalties, and Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Louisiana’s congressional delegation are demanding more.
The president also said the city’s rebirth must include improvements to the poor-performing school system. Laura Bush, in remarks introducing the president, urged teachers nationwide to come to the region to teach.
“We know that families can’t move back unless there’s schools for the kids, and so education is one of the most important parts of the recovery,” the first lady said.
“This city occupies a unique place in America’s cultural landscape, and the recovery won’t be complete until New Orleanians return home and their culture is restored,” she said.
After the speech, Bush’s motorcade headed through poor areas of the city and stopped at the home of music legend Fats Domino, which was seriously damaged by the storm. “How about it, Fats Domino,” Bush said as they emerged from the house. Bush said he would replace a National Medal of Arts that Domino lost in the storm.
Bells, meanwhile, rang across the city at 9:38 as survivors of the storm gathered outside City Hall.
“I felt like I needed to be here. It’s like a funeral, and life goes on after today,” said Gayla Dunn, 33, of New Orleans.
From City Hall, Mayor Ray Nagin told the crowd the anniversary was a difficult day for everyone, including himself. “Trust me. We will get through it. We will get through it together,” he said.
The working relationship between Bush and Nagin, a Democrat, has been tense ever since the first days after Katrina made landfall last year. Nagin has blamed the federal government for reacting too slowly to rescue stranded New Orleanians and for tying up relief money in red tape, while surrogates for the president have accused state and local officials of mishandling the money.
After they met for breakfast Tuesday to mark the anniversary, Bush echoed some of Nagin’s observations in his interview with NBC News.
“I think what [people] are worried about is that at the federal level they just write a check and just move on,” he said. “And there are a lot of things we need to do. We need to cut through some bureaucracy.”
Local parish officials “are concerned about nitpicking rules. There clearly needs to be some more entrepreneurship here at the local level,” he added.
“On the other hand, I can see why FEMA officials are worried, because they’ve been castigated. And so people are risk-averse. [We] need to encourage them to be more flexible, and we’ll cover them if Congress gets on them, which inevitably they will,” Bush said.
'It has been a long year'
Elsewhere on the Gulf Coast, residents commemorated the storm that brought the region to its breaking point.
In the hard-hit town of parishioners of the destroyed Christ Episcopal Church gathered around the restored bell tower and rang the bell 58 times — one for each local victim of the storm — punctuated by three peals representing the Holy Trinity.
Dootsie Murphy of Bay St. Louis was just glad her church could come together for the occasion. "It has been a long year," she said.
In Gulfport, Miss., Mayor Brent Warr exhorted residents to stick with recovery efforts.
“We’re not well. We’re not finished," he said. "But I will say this: We’ve made it. Let’s move on. Let’s move forward.”
In a park overlooking the Mississippi Sound in Gulfport, Ware and his community remembered 14 residents lost to the storm. Firefighters, police officers and paramedics carried 14 red roses to the front of the stage, placing them in a ceremonial vase.
The daughter of an 83-year-old man who drowned in his home last year clutched one of the roses after the service. “I’m hoping this is a step forward. I’ve been crying for a year and I’m tired of crying,” said Carolyn Bozzetti, 60.
In St. Bernard Parish, where virtually every building was flooded when levees buckled, about 400 people assembled for mass at Our Lady of Prompt Succor, a church named for the saint to whom Catholics in Louisiana traditionally pray for protection from hurricanes.
Much still to be done
Throughout the city, white trailers still line driveways in neighborhoods where debris is stacked up in piles and unchecked weeds have overtaken abandoned houses. Only half the population has returned. Emergency medical care is doled out in an abandoned department store, while six of New Orleans’ nine hospitals remain closed. Only 54 of 128 public schools are expected to open this fall.
The one-year mark is a reminder of how much needs to be done. And Bush and his wife told NBC News they were personally committed to getting it done because of their own close ties to New Orleans.
“George and I grew up in a neighboring state,” Laura Bush told Williams. “This was the vacation destination that I went to with my parents when I was younger. I rode the Wild Mouse at the big park at Lake Pontchartrain with my mother, and we both screamed years ago, and it was also a place that we brought our children.”
She noted that it was in New Orleans that the Republican Party nominated Bush’s father for president in 1988. “We had a wonderful summertime there in 1988,” she said. “We have many personal family memories of New Orleans, and it’s a special city to us.”
President Bush said his visit Monday and Tuesday “reminded me of how connected we are to New Orleans. We’ve got a lot of friends, and we’ve got a lot of memories.”
“I can remember going to the jazz festival here early on,” he said. “It’s a remarkable city, particularly if you’re somebody out of Houston or Texas — you will probably spend a lot of time here, most of which you can remember.”