Bush unveils sweeping plan for rebuilding the Gulf Coast

Federally funded offer includes cash, home sites

Emergency plans to be reviewed

President strongly critical of federal response

Katrina's Wake

September 16, 2005|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush called last night for a sweeping, federally financed rebuilding effort that would leave the devastated cities and towns of the Gulf Coast "even better and stronger than they were" before Hurricane Katrina struck.

Bush offered no price tag for the redevelopment project in a prime-time speech that included his strongest criticism yet of the federal government's response to the storm.

The effort, "at every level of government, was not well coordinated," said Bush, speaking from New Orleans, the city hit hardest by Katrina, which is being called the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history.

"I, as president, am responsible for the problem and for the solution," he said.

Bush also addressed the concern, expressed by many in recent days, that the government's disorganized and sometimes chaotic response to a storm that had been forecast well in advance was an indication that the country is not prepared to react to a major terrorist attack.

The president said he had ordered an immediate federal review of emergency plans in every major city in the country.

"This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina," he said, and "make necessary changes so that we are better prepared for any challenge of nature, or act of evil men, that could threaten our people."

Bush said it is clear that a disaster on the scale of the Category 4 storm, which he said "overwhelmed" government's ability to respond, requires "greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces."

He called the military the arm of government "most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice."

Similar proposals to expand the military's role in domestic disasters were made in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, in 1992, but they went nowhere after the Pentagon resisted the idea.

3-pronged initiative

In his 22-minute speech, Bush outlined a three-pronged initiative aimed at spurring private investment in the Gulf Coast states hit hardest; up to $5,000 in direct assistance for each evacuee; and a qualified offer to give small parcels of federally owned land in the region to the poorest storm victims for home sites.

Bush said the rebuilding project would be "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen."

U.S. taxpayers would pick up "the great majority" of the cost of repairing roads, bridges, schools and water systems in Louisiana and Mississippi but state and local officials would be in charge of planning the details, he said.

The White House declined to estimate the cost of the proposals. Members of Congress have said that $200 billion or more in federal aid is expected to go to the gulf region.

Some Republicans in Congress have called for creating a huge federal redevelopment agency to oversee the effort and for the appointment of a "czar" to direct it. The administration has resisted the notion of a federal overseer but hasn't ruled it out, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, and Bush made no mention of the idea in his speech.

The president, making his fourth visit to the region since the storm, spoke from an outdoor site in New Orleans' French Quarter, the city's main tourist attraction.

He delivered his remarks in an open-necked dress shirt, a symbolic, and rare, departure from prime-time presidential formality like the cardigan sweater that President Jimmy Carter donned for an energy speech in which he asked Americans to sacrifice by turning down their thermostats.

The White House brought in generators to power lighting for the speech, which Bush delivered from Jackson Square, near the Mississippi River. An equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, was in the background, a duplicate of one directly across from the White House.

"There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again," Bush said hours after Mayor Ray Nagin announced that about 182,000 residents could begin returning by Monday.

Bush, whose political standing has been shaken in the aftermath of the storm, was under pressure to come up with a plan for housing and jobs for the many thousands of people left homeless by Katrina.

The proposals he described last night were based on of federal models from the 19th and 20th centuries but stopped well short of the sweeping federal aid projects associated with the liberal, Democratic New Deal and Great Society programs.

The proposals included:

A Gulf Opportunity Zone drawing on the conservative idea of enterprise zones that became popular during the Reagan era. Designed to encourage private investment in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, the program would offer tax incentives, loans and loan guarantees for private businesses to invest in areas hit hardest by Katrina.

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