Reflecting on Katrina

In New Orleans to mark anniversary, Bush acknowledges failures, vows better response

August 30, 2006|By James Gerstenzang | James Gerstenzang,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW ORLEANS -- President Bush delivered a message of perseverance and hope yesterday to a city still struggling with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, renewing his pledge to help New Orleans recover and declaring that the next hurricane would be met with a better response than occurred a year ago.

He also took responsibility for his administration's much-criticized initial response to the storm.

In the midst of the otherwise sober commemorations marking the first anniversary of the storm, Bush made two last-minute stops that brought him in touch with the city's music and one of its icons, and with the uniqueness of New Orleans.

He delivered a National Medal of Arts to Antoine "Fats" Domino to replace the one lost when the singer's home, in the Lower Ninth Ward, was destroyed in the storm. And at a rebuilt home in the Upper Ninth Ward, he hoisted a television camera and recorded a cameraman who, at the president's suggestion, had picked up a tambourine to accompany blues musicians playing there.

Bush spent much of the day in the city, which, from the poverty-stricken Lower Ninth to the French Quarter and the more affluent neighborhoods, could not escape the memories of a year ago.

With about 1,000 others, he and first lady Laura Bush attended a Roman Catholic Mass at St. Louis Cathedral. At 9:39 a.m. the congregation knelt in two minutes of silent prayer to mark the first breach of the levees - a catastrophic event that eventually flooded 80 percent of the city.

Moments before the president arrived, the organist slipped in a musical message of optimism: a few bars of "Happy Days Are Here Again," albeit at a reverential tempo.

The cathedral, in the French Quarter, overlooks Jackson Square - the site where Bush addressed the nation on Sept. 15, committing the federal government to an immense effort to revive one of the nation's oldest and most distinctive cities.

Yesterday, he saluted the volunteers who helped revive the city, called on corporations to continue contributing to that renewal and delivered a daunting assessment of work still to be done. And by promising a better response to the next hurricane, he silently acknowledged the failures of a year ago.

Bush spoke to more than 400 people in the auditorium at Warren Easton Senior High School, the oldest public school in the city. Closed since the storm, which filled classrooms and corridors with 10 feet of water, it is scheduled to reopen Sept. 7 as a charter school.

"Step one of rebuilding is to assure people, if another hurricane comes, there will be a better, more effective response," he said.

Bush said that relief supplies were sent to the region before the current hurricane season began and that the 350-mile levee system had been largely restored to its pre-Katrina strength. Many levees, he said, were stronger than before the storm.

But the tasks remaining, he said, included making the streets safer, building homes and, a year after the storm, removing broken furniture and old refrigerators and other debris piles. Roughly 75 percent of the debris, which had been piled on streets and lots, has been taken away, said Donald Powell, Bush's coordinator of the recovery effort.

"This anniversary is not an end," Bush said. "We will stand with the people of southern Louisiana and southern Mississippi until the job is done."

He pointed out that some residents did not yet know whether they had a neighborhood to which they could return, others were living in trailers, many were separated from family and lacked jobs, and many fear for their safety "because of violent criminals."

"I take full responsibility for the federal government's response," he said, adding that the pledge he made in his speech in Jackson Square to help the city recover remained good a year later.

After the speech, music filled the bedraggled auditorium. But rather than the marches of John Philip Sousa, the usual accompaniment as Bush shakes hands with the audience, it was a tune more befitting to the location: a recording of Fats Domino singing "Walking to New Orleans."

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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