A city coming back

KATRINA: TWO YEARS LATER Bush tours New Orleans, Gulf Coast, assuring that `we're still paying attention'

August 30, 2007|By James Gerstenzang | James Gerstenzang,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW ORLEANS -- Against a backdrop of criticism over the slow pace of the federal rebuilding effort two years after Hurricane Katrina struck, President Bush marked the storm's anniversary yesterday with an optimistic message.

"This town is coming back," he said at a charter school in one of the city's most flood-ravaged neighborhoods. "This town is better today than it was yesterday, and it's going to be better tomorrow than it was today."

The president spent much of the day in the Crescent City and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, repeating the message of federal support that he has espoused in 14 previous visits to the region, but bringing no new money to spur the recovery.

From the president's decision in the days after the storm to fly over a stricken New Orleans without landing as he returned to Washington from vacation to the chaos of rescue efforts and the botched post-hurricane relief program, the Bush administration's response to the hurricane's floods has brought criticism and political controversy.

In New Orleans, recovery has been spotty at best. The historic French Quarter and neighborhoods close to the Mississippi River did not flood and have bounced back fairly well. The city's population had reached an estimated 274,000 in July, about 60 percent of its pre-storm level of 455,000. Sales tax revenues are approaching normal, and tourism and the port industry are recovering.

But vast stretches of the city show little or no recovery. A housing shortage and high rents have hampered business growth. The homeless population has almost doubled since the storm, and many of those squat in an estimated 80,000 vacant dwellings. Violent crime is also on the rise, and the National Guard and state troopers still supplement a diminished local police force.

Two weeks after the storm, Bush stood in Jackson Square in the French Quarter and said, in a speech to the nation, "This great city will rise again."

Yesterday, in a quiet recognition of the pressure to turn that message into reality, he said Washington had not forgotten his commitment.

"It's one thing to come and give a speech in Jackson Square; it's another thing to keep paying attention to whether or not progress is being made. And I hope people understand we do, we're still paying attention," the president said.

Bush started the day's public events with a speech in the media room of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology, dedicated last June and the first public school to open in the storm-devastated Lower Ninth Ward.

The presidential motorcade route also wound past lingering evidence of the destruction: blocks with rebuilt houses, but with many more boarded-up houses, some tagged with the spray-paint markings left by searchers looking for the storm's victims. The president's motorcade drove over the Industrial Canal, where the new cement flood wall had "Hindsight" painted in large red letters.

Off his route in the Lower Ninth Ward, there was even more evidence: entire blocks deserted and store after store boarded up - Family Dollar, Walgreens, St. Claude Hardware.

A recent report from the RFK Center and the Institute for Southern Studies estimated that the Bush administration was overstating federal funding for the Gulf Coast rebuilding campaign by as much as 300 percent, with about $35 billion of an estimated $114 billion actually spent. White House officials said Wednesday the amount is $96 billion.

In an "open letter" to Bush, Shelley Midura, a New Orleans City Council member, said the funding "has served you well, as your spokesmen often cite it as an indicator of your dedication to our recovery." But Midura, who noted that much of it covered initial post-storm relief, added, "It hasn't served us as well - it's not enough, it's been given grudgingly, and only after our elected officials have had to fight for it."

Bush was also greeted by an editorial in the New Orleans Times-Picayune with a front-page teaser that pleaded: "TREAT US FAIRLY, MR. PRESIDENT." The newspaper compared federal spending in Louisiana with that in Mississippi and concluded: "In every case, Mississippi ended up with a disproportionate share of aid."

The disparity between the speed of the recovery in Mississippi, whose Republican governor, Haley Barbour, has close ties to the Bush administration, and in New Orleans and Louisiana, led by Democrats, has been a point of sharp controversy.

The newspaper contended that if Community Development Block Grant funds had been "handed out proportionate to the damage," Louisiana should have received $22 billion, four times the $5.5 billion that Mississippi received, but it had received just $10.4 billion.

Bush made no reference to such controversies on his visit.

At the center of the federal effort to revive New Orleans is the reconstruction of the levees, which failed to hold back flood waters. The Army Corps of Engineers is scheduled to finish by 2011, said Don Powell, the federal Gulf Coast reconstruction coordinator.

In Mississippi, the president visited Bay St. Louis, which he called the storm's "ground zero."

"People are worried about insurance here. They're worried about bureaucracy," he said at an event with elected officials at Our Lady of the Gulf Community Center, but added that they were most worried they would be forgotten. "We haven't forgotten, and won't."

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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