Laura Bush tours schools and “Katrina Cottages” on Miss. coast

Published 5:35 pm Friday, February 23, 2007

First lady Laura Bush toured “Katrina Cottages” and visited children at an elementary school on the Mississippi Gulf Coast Thursday, saying she was encouraged by the recovery effort since Hurricane Katrina.

Ending her one-day visit, Bush said that while it may be difficult for those living on the coast to see the progress being made since the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane, “for me, when I come back every six weeks or a month, I really can see some signs of progress … a lot of rebuilding.”

Bush has visited the Mississippi coast seven times since Katrina, her office said.

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“I know it’s going to take a long time, but I am encouraged people are going to be able to do it,” she said of the rebuilding.

During an afternoon visit to D’Iberville Elementary School in Harrison County, Bush met with more than a dozen children who showed her their drawings of their safe place during Katrina.

“For children who suffered the trauma that these children have, school offers a real routine and the normalcy of a life,” she said during the stop.

“It’s very, very important that schools get rebuilt all along the Gulf Coast and that more children can come back to their communities,” Bush said.

One child, whose name tag identified her as Samantha, told Bush her father had been sent to Iraq the day before Katrina. She said her mother had promised her father the family would stay with relatives and friends. She said her father has since returned safely from Iraq.

Another child, Caileigh, described to Bush her drawing, which depicted the child, her sister and two dogs as the girls fished from a pier after the storm to escape some of the sadness.

Bush said she would tell the president about the fishing trip.

Noting that several of the children said their safe place had been with grandparents, Bush said her grandmother’s home was “always my safe place.”

“One of the interesting things about all of their stories is that other people helped them have a safe place,” she said.

A few hours earlier, she had toured the “Katrina Cottages” in Ocean Springs.

The relatively inexpensive homes on display are designed to give thousands of Gulf Coast families still living in government-issued trailers in Mississippi and Louisiana a more homelike atmosphere.

“I have tremendous respect for Mrs. Bush, her dedication to education and reading,” said Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran, a Democrat, who toured the demonstration cottages with Bush and architect Bruce Tolar. “I’ll make her a Katrina Cottage advocate.”

Three cottages are located at “Cottage Village,” an open area down a dirt road in downtown Ocean Springs.

Bush spent about 30 minutes touring two completed units, one 300 square feet and the other 500 square feet. A larger cottage of 1,300 square feet and two stories was under construction nearby and many more are planned.

“The feel of the inside is comfortable,” she said. “I really do believe the Gulf Coast is going to end up being an innovator for the rest of the world, certainly for the United States, as we talk about ways to do quick and affordable but still sturdy and safe housing.”

Mississippi and Louisiana were among the Gulf Coast states that competed for federal dollars to test and build alternative housing that FEMA hopes can become a model for how to provide housing when the country suffers other disasters. Mississippi is receiving $281 million of the $400 million earmarked by Congress for the “Katrina Cottage” program, while Louisiana is getting $75 million.

Mike LeBetard of Biloxi, a partner with Tolar, said a major problem faced by coast families wanting a cottage is obtaining affordable insurance.

“We can build affordable housing, but we can’t get them in it because of insurance,” he said.

State Farm Insurance Cos. recently said it was suspending the writing of homeowners and commercial policies in Mississippi.

Bush spent about an hour at a restaurant on Ocean Springs’ Back Bay, eating an oyster po’boy sandwich she described as “great.”

A number of people joined the first lady in the dining area, including area school administrators, U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., and restaurant owner John McElroy.