Bush making 3rd visit to New Orleans

Hopeful signs match sobering reminders as devastated city dries out

Katrina's Wake

September 12, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW ORLEANS - President Bush arrived here last night for his third visit as this stricken city continued its determined struggle to recover from Hurricane Katrina's shattering arrival two weeks ago. The airport announced plans to resume some commercial flights this week; the largest levee breach has been closed; and floodwaters have slowly receded, speeding recovery but also exposing the breadth of the devastation.

In sharp contrast to his previous trips, in which Bush seemed intent on reassuring the public about the government's role and the commitment to rebuild New Orleans and the Mississippi coastal communities, the White House portrayed this trip as more akin to a general heading to the front lines for inspection.

Today, Bush is to be briefed about the recovery effort onboard the USS Iwo Jima, an amphibious assault ship docked in the Mississippi River on the edge of the city's central business district, where ghostly office buildings loom over a crowded, noisy street scene of relief works, soldiers and trucks. The president is then scheduled to tour New Orleans in a military convoy, followed by an aerial tour and meetings with local officials.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush will use the visit here to "assess the situation on the ground and visit with those who are overseeing operations on the ground."

Hopeful signs and sobering reminders came in about equal number yesterday, which has been the pattern of many recent days since the storm.

Officials announced that they plan to resume commercial flights into and out of Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport tomorrow, a critical precursor to any reconstruction effort in the flood-ravaged city.

The airport formally reopened for cargo traffic yesterday.

The port of New Orleans planned to reopen its container terminal Wednesday. The port has 12 damaged wharfs and one wharf that is inaccessible because of flooding.

And at the 17th Street Canal, where the eastern levee wall partially collapsed after the storm, flooding most of the city, heavy equipment rolled across the concrete and stone that seals the sandbags that temporarily plugged the 300-foot breach. Six of the 15 pumps at Pumping Station No. 6, which is at the canal, were working yesterday.

"They're cranking away," Col. Terry J. Ebbert, the city's head of homeland security, said as he flew over the area yesterday in a Black Hawk helicopter. As he looked past the station and across acres of brown water whose stench rose through the helicopter doors, Ebbert added, "but you can see why it's going to take a long time."

But disaster relief officials said the falling water level was revealing what the deep waters had hidden: that places like the city's 9th Ward near the levees that held back Lake Pontchartrain, were not simply inundated by Katrina, but largely destroyed.

"There's nothing out there that can be saved at all," Ebbert said as he surveyed a section of the lower 9th Ward from the helicopter.

Even as New Orleans showed signs of recovery, Louisiana state officials offered a new criticism of the federal government's response to the disaster, saying that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been slow to move more than 50,000 evacuees living in shelters to longer-term and more comfortable housing arrangements.

"We have a real concern right now with the assistance we're getting from FEMA on temporary housing," said P. Jeffrey Smith, a deputy director of the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. "We do not feel this process is moving fast enough."

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