Bush to tour New Orleans and Mississippi Gulf Coast

Published 8:10 pm Wednesday, August 29, 2007

President Bush is marking Hurricane Katrina’s devastating blow two years ago by celebrating those he says have “dedicated their lives to the renewal of New Orleans” even as he and others are criticized for not doing more to get the city and Gulf Coast back to their former selves.

Bush and his wife, Laura, are to spend Wednesday’s anniversary remembering the storm in New Orleans and Bay St. Louis, Miss.

It is the president’s 15th visit to the Gulf Coast since the massive hurricane obliterated coastal Mississippi, drowned most of the Big Easy and killed 1,600 people in Louisiana and Mississippi when it roared onto land the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, but only his second stop in these parts since last year’s anniversary.

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The performance by the president and the federal government in the immediate aftermath of the storm — and some residents’ lingering sense of abandonment since — severely dented Bush’s image as a take-charge leader.

As on other visits, the president and his team arrived here armed with facts and figures to show how much the Bush administration has done to fulfill the promises the president made two-and-a-half weeks after the hurricane.

“We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives,” Bush said then from historic Jackson Square in New Orleans’ French Quarter. “This great city will rise again.”

In fact, there is some good news here. The city’s population is rebounding, and a few neighborhoods thrive. New Orleans has recovered much of its economic base and sales tax revenues are approaching normal. The French Quarter survived Katrina, and the music and restaurant scenes are recovering.

However, much of New Orleans still looks like a wasteland, with businesses shuttered and houses abandoned. Basic services like schools, libraries, public transportation and childcare are at half their original levels and only two-thirds of the region’s licensed hospitals are open. Rental properties are in severely short supply, driving rents for those that are available way up. Crime is rampant and police operate out of trailers.

Along Mississippi’s 70-mile shoreline, harsh economic realities also are hampering rebuilding.

Many projects are hamstrung by the soaring costs of construction and insurance, while federal funding has been slow to flow to cities. Other economic indicators, such as population, employment and housing supplies, are down.

Bush’s Gulf Coast rebuilding chief, Don Powell, noted the federal government has committed a total of $114 billion to the region, $96 billion of which is already disbursed or available to local governments. Most of it has been for disaster relief, not long-term recovery. He implied it is local officials’ fault, particularly in Louisiana where the pace has been slower, if money has not reached citizens.

Powell also said the president intends to ask for the approximately $5 billion federal share of the $7.6 billion more needed to strengthen New Orleans’ levee system to withstand a 100-year storm and improve the area’s drainage system. Though the levees are not yet ready for the next massive storm, they are slated to be strengthened by 2015.

Powell said other areas, such as infrastructure repair and home rebuilding, are shared responsibilities with local officials or entirely the purview of state and local governments, suggesting that the federal government is absolved when those things don’t happen.

The president and Mrs. Bush began this anniversary’s visit with dinner Tuesday night with about two dozen politicians, athletes, musicians, developers and others at Dooky Chase, once a gathering place for civil rights leaders now famous for its traditional Creole cooking.