Bush pauses to remember victims of Hurricane Katrina

Published 6:17 pm Wednesday, August 30, 2006

President Bush bowed his head in prayer Tuesday in remembrance of the hundreds who perished in Hurricane Katrina exactly one year ago, then made an impassioned plea for former residents to return to this struggling city.

“I know you love New Orleans, and New Orleans needs you,” Bush said. “She needs people coming home. She needs people — she needs those saints to come marching back, is what she needs!”

Finishing a two-day trip to Louisiana and Mississippi communities that were devastated by the storm on Aug. 29, 2005, Bush also acknowledged that his administration’s response to the disaster was unacceptable.

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“We’re addressing what went wrong,” he told residents at a high school gymnasium in an uplifting speech that spoke to the heroic efforts of rescuers and the death and despair left behind when the floodwaters receded.

“Unfortunately, the hurricane also brought terrible scenes we never thought we’d see in America,” Bush said. “Citizens drowned in their attics. Desperate mothers crying out on national TV for food and water. A breakdown of law and order and a government, at all levels, that fell short of its responsibilities.

“When the rain stopped … our television screens showed faces worn down by poverty and despair. And for most of you, the storms were only the beginning of our difficulties.

With Hurricane Ernesto bearing down on Florida, Bush said the government is better prepared for the next storm. And to help people still suffering from Katrina, the government is working to get federal money quickly to the people.

“New Orleans is calling her children home,” he said. “I hear it from all the local officials. They say they have a plan in place, and money coming.”

Only half of New Orleans has electricity. Half its hospitals are closed. Violent crime is up. Less than half the population has returned. Tens of thousands of families still live in trailers and mobile homes with no real timetable for moving to more permanent housing. Insurance settlements are mired in red tape. The city still has no master rebuilding plan. And while much debris has been cleared, some remains as if the clock stopped when the storm struck.

Bush said the federal government cannot do the recovery job alone, nor should it. It was a nudge to city and state officials here to finalize master rebuilding plans.

“This is your home,” he said. “You know what needs to be done, and a reborn Louisiana must reflect the views of the people down here.”

“We will stand with the people of Louisiana and southern Mississippi until the job is done,” he said.

“A renewed New Orleans is a New Orleans with new homes,” he said.

Bush was applauded loudly when he promised to ask Congress for legislation giving Louisiana a bigger share of royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling. The state now receives less than 2 percent of the royalties, and Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Louisiana’s congressional delegation are demanding more.

The president also said the city’s rebirth must include improvements to the poor-performing school system. First lady Laura Bush, in remarks introducing the president, urged teachers nationwide to come to the region to teach.

“We know that families can’t move back unless there’s schools for the kids and so education is one of the most important parts of the recovery,” she said.

“This city occupies a unique place in America’s cultural landscape and the recovery won’t be complete until New Orleanians return home and their culture is restored,” she said.

After the speech, Bush’s motorcade headed through poor areas of the city and stopped at the home of music legend Fats Domino, which was seriously damaged by the storm. “How about it, Fats Domino,” Bush said as they emerged from the house. Bush said he would replace a National Medal of Arts that Domino lost in the storm.

The president and his wife began the day at a prayer service at the triple-spired St. Louis Cathedral, which was left virtually untouched by the fierce winds and high waters that hit the city on Aug. 29, 2005.

At 9:38 a.m. Central time, they knelt for a moment of silence to mark the first breaching of the levees that allowed massive flooding of the city.

The church stands in the French Quarter’s Jackson Square, where last year the president declared: “This great city will rise again.”

A clergyman opened the interfaith service by thanking Bush for his “steadfast support in our recovery.” Later, Roman Catholic Archbishop Alfred Hughes spoke of the human toll of the storm in New Orleans, where bells tolled in remembrance.

“The loss of life, of homes, of possessions, a whole way of life, has tested our faith profoundly. The painstakingly slow progress in rebuilding has tested our hope,” he said.

Rebirth in New Orleans has begun, but it has been slow-going by all accounts. Bush is looking to local leaders to design a rebuilding plan that can speed revival.

The death toll in Louisiana from Katrina is near 1,600, including nearly 300 who died in other states after fleeing the hurricane.

The president began a national day of remembrance by meeting with Mayor Ray Nagin in a neighborhood where homes are still stained with high-water marks.

As he walked into the packed Betsy’s Pancake House, waitress Joyce Labruzzo jokingly asked: “Mr. President, are you going to turn your back on me?”

“No ma’am, not again,” Bush replied to laughter.

It was a lighthearted moment that could have been a metaphor for the administration’s poor response to the storm and Bush’s work since to make amends.

Outside the school, a man held a spray-painted banner that said “Bush Failure.”