Bush to mark anniversary of Katrina in New Orleans

Administration defends its response after hurricane, rebuilding progress


WASHINGTON -- As next week's one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina triggers memories of people stranded on rooftops and mass tragedy along the Gulf Coast, the White House has begun a public relations blitz to counteract Democratic Party critics who hope to use the government response and slow recovery against Republicans in the coming congressional elections.

President Bush will visit the area Monday and Tuesday, including an overnight stay in New Orleans. He will likely visit the Lower Ninth Ward, the heavily black area that remains mired in debris and devastation, and is expected to meet with storm victims.

Bush will be forced to revisit sensitive racial issues that arose with the flooding of New Orleans, when civil rights leaders charged that the White House was slow to respond because so many victims were black and GOP strategists acknowledged a major setback in efforts to court traditionally Democratic African-American voters.

The White House announced Bush's visit yesterday, while a phalanx of administration officials stood before reporters to make the case that billions of dollars have flowed to the region already and millions more are on the way. The announcement came one day after Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales traveled to the region to announce that he was sending additional lawyers and other resources to New Orleans to fight fraud and abuse.

Don Powell, the White House point man on recovery, declared that Bush was "fulfilling his commitment to rebuild the Gulf coast better and stronger."

The coordinated response is the latest example of White House officials maneuvering to portray a campaign issue expected to be harmful for Republicans in a more positive light.

The effort comes as Democrats, who have decided to challenge Republicans on national security in this year's elections, move to portray the response to Katrina as evidence that Bush failed to fix inadequacies exposed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

A report being released today by top Democrats, titled "Broken Promises: The Republican Response to Katrina," features a picture of Bush from his Sept. 15, 2005, speech in New Orleans' Jackson Square, in which he promised to oversee "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen."

The report argues that every aspect of the Gulf Coast recovery "suffers from a failed Republican response marked by unfulfilled promises, cronyism, waste, fraud, and abuse."

Democrats said yesterday that they intend to respond aggressively as the White House seeks to frame the Katrina story. In a conference call with reporters, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada tied Katrina to broader questions of national security in the wake of the terrorist attacks, as others pledged to focus on administration failings in the Gulf Coast region.

"I don't believe a week's worth of any kind of publicity will cover up the fact that this administration was very slow off the block to recognize the magnitude of this tragedy," said Louisiana Sen. Mary L. Landrieu.

Leaders of the recovery effort said yesterday that, while progress has been slow in some areas, Bush will be able to point to success in New Orleans neighborhoods such as the French Quarter and Garden District.

"If you go to most of the city, you see enormous progress," said Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and co-chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. "They are probably going to go the Lower Ninth Ward, which is very honest of them, because that's the place you see the least progress."

Isaacson said he considered many of the Democrats' criticisms to be unfair.

Bush offered a preview this week of his anniversary message, arguing that despite frustrations about the slow arrival of housing money and delays in debris removal, the recovery is moving ahead as he promised.

"I went to New Orleans, in Jackson Square, and made a commitment that we would help the people there recover," he said during a news conference Monday. "I also want the people down there to understand that it's going to take a while to recover. This was a huge storm."

Bush said that millions of dollars in housing grants were on the way and that the federal government was coordinating with state and local officials to "get the money into the hands of the people."

Bush had suggested that $110 billion in federal funds had been "committed" to help the region rebuild. But confusion persisted yesterday over what portion of that money had been spent.

During the White House briefing, Powell acknowledged that $44 billion, about 40 percent of the total, had been distributed to hurricane victims, but suggested the gap was not primarily the fault of the federal government, blaming state and local roles.

Peter Wallsten and Maura Reynolds write for the Los Angeles Times.

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