President Bush said a lot of work remains to be done to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Katrina as he visited the hurricane recovery zone Tuesday and hammered nails into a home being built for displaced residents.
“Out of this rubble is going to come some good,” the president told several hundred troops at Belle Chasse Naval Air Station in a brief pep talk delivered from the back of a black pickup truck.
Bush spoke as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it had finished pumping out the New Orleans metropolitan area, which was flooded by Hurricane Katrina six weeks ago and then swamped again by Hurricane Rita.
At one point, 80 percent of New Orleans was underwater. Much of the city had been pumped out when Rita pushed more water over the levees.
Corps spokeswoman Lauren Solis said temporary repairs to the levees along the 17th Street and London Avenue canals are nearly complete.
Another task force has begun rebuilding the levees to their pre-Katrina condition and is scheduled to finish its work by the time the next hurricane season begins June 1.
Earlier, Bush and his wife, Laura, visited a Habitat for Humanity work site in Covington, a town just north of New Orleans where the nonprofit organization is building houses for those who lost homes. He rejoiced in what he said was a spirit of revival there.
“I think we’ve seen the spirits change,” Bush said in an interview with NBC’s “Today” show. “Local people are beginning to realize there’s hope.” In the interview, both he and Laura defended his choice of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court. Bush reiterated that he was confident she would be confirmed by the Senate.
Apologies for government’s response
In response to the government’s initially slow response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush said, “If I didn’t respond well enough, I’m going to learn the lessons.” The federal government’s response to the second huge storm to slam the area, Rita, has gotten better reviews.
“The story will unfold. I mean, the facts of the story will come out over time, and the important thing is for federal, state and local governments to adjust and to respond,” Bush said.
Bush’s motorcade wended its way through the pitch dark down Covington’s largely unscathed streets to the brightly lit Habitat site — a small patch of land amid a still-sleeping, modest neighborhood turned into a makeshift TV set.
Dressed for the occasion in hard hat, work gloves and a large wraparound tool belt, the president joined other volunteers hammering nails into a sheet of plywood. The first lady, a cloth nail pouch around her waist, accompanied him. Bush spent most of his time chatting, signing autographs and posing for pictures.
At one point, a woman threw him some Mardi Gras beads that fell to the ground. “I couldn’t catch them during the real Mardi Gras, and I can’t catch them now,” he quipped.
Later, he went to the hard-hit Mississippi coast town of Pass Christian to celebrate Monday’s reopening of DeLisle Elementary School — which is now educating students from two schools for a combined population of 1,100, down from 2,000 before the storm. Mingling with dozens of children gathered in a grassy courtyard, Bush heard one boy say he had a dream he was president. “Someday you may be,” Bush replied with a laugh.
He then visited a classroom of kindergarten children wiggling in their seats and running to hug him and Laura Bush.
“Part of the health of a community is to have a school system that is vibrant and alive,” the president told them. “This school system is strong, and it’s coming back.”
Rejecting Democrats’ claims
In the interview, Bush rejected criticism from Democrats that his visits — this was his eighth — were largely for publicity and that he lacks a coherent reconstruction plan.
“I don’t think Washington ought to dictate to New Orleans how to rebuild,” he said. Bush said he had told New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin that “we will support the plan that you develop.”
Of his Supreme Court selection, Bush was asked about growing criticism from the political right that Miers lacks proven conservative credentials.
“My answer is Harriet Miers is going to be confirmed and people will get to see why I put her on the bench,” he said. The first lady was asked if she shared her husband’s conviction. “Absolutely. Absolutely,” she said.
“She’s very deliberate and thoughtful and will bring dignity to wherever she goes, but certainly to the Supreme Court. She’ll be really excellent,” she said.
Asked if she believed some of the criticism reflected possible sexism, she responded: “I think that’s possible.”
On other subjects, Bush:
- Predicted the Oct. 15 Iraqi elections on a new constitution would be marked by violence from “a group of terrorists and killers who want to stop the advance of democracy.” And, Bush said, “I also expect people to vote.”
- Expressed confidence that the government would develop a plan “to handle a major outbreak” of bird flu if it spreads to this country.
- Declined to discuss a federal grand jury investigation that includes an inquiry into the role, if any, that top adviser Karl Rove played in disclosing the identity of an undercover CIA agent. “I’m not going to talk about the case. It’s under review. Thank you for asking,” Bush said tersely.
Bush was asked about criticism by some Democrats that while Iraqis were not required to repay money they have received from Washington, hurricane victims were required to do just that recent relief legislation passed by Congress.
“What Congress has said is, you’ll have five years to repay plus an additional five years to repay. And so I think it’s the kind of package that Congress was comfortable with giving, and I was happy to sign it,” Bush said.
Laura Bush was asked how her husband was holding up personally under the strains of recent major crises and setbacks. But before she could answer, Bush interjected: “He can barely stand. He’s about to drop on the spot.”
Laughing, the first lady said: “He’s doing great. He’s got big broad shoulders.”