Hurricane Katrina lashed President Bush’s image as a take-charge commander in chief when it battered and deluged the Gulf Coast. Ever since, the president has sought to overcome the political damage done when he appeared initially aloof from the suffering and oversaw a balky federal response.
Over the past year, Bush has visited the region many times, made a raft of promises — some kept, some deferred — and sent down tens of billions in federal aid. The president returns to still-ailing Louisiana and Mississippi this week, intending to remind Americans the rebuilding is far from finished and to reassure victims that Washington will not bail out.
“In Mississippi and Louisiana, we can see many encouraging signs of recovery and renewal, and many reminders that hard work still lies ahead,” Bush said Saturday. “We will stay until the job is done,” he said in his weekly radio address from Maine, where he was spending a long weekend at his family’s summer home before the week of travel.
The president’s two-day anniversary visit is his 13th since Katrina’s struck last Aug. 29, but the first in more than three months.
Democrats also are converging on the Gulf to make the case that Bush and his Republican Party should be held accountable for failing storm victims — not just at first, but even today.
In addition, some residents of the area fear the president’s Katrina focus may be fading.
“It’s not enough and it never has been,” Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said in an interview. “It’s been sporadic. It’s been without focus, in my opinion, and it still lacks a depth of understanding of the problem.”
The visit Monday and Tuesday also coincides with the threat that the season’s potential first hurricane, Ernesto, could enter the Gulf of Mexico.
The president’s schedule looks much like that from previous trips, many of which drew criticism for featuring staged events with supportive residents and for being dominated by official meetings.
Bush goes from lunch with Mississippi community leaders to a dinner in New Orleans with local officials. His staff has picked Mississippi and Louisiana residents to talk with him. He attends a prayer service in New Orleans.
In both states, Bush delivers speeches to applaud progress but also argue that, given the unprecedented damage, the one-year anniversary comes too soon for a fair judgment of the recovery.
This message was driven home ahead of Bush’s travels in a media briefing by Don Powell, Bush’s Gulf Coast coordinator; by Cabinet secretaries who fanned out across the region; and in a White House “one-year anniversary” fact sheet.
Among their proof of a region on the mend, albeit haltingly:
• the pace of federal loans to help businesses has picked up, with $10.4 billion approved.
• 96 percent of debris has been cleared from Mississippi and 72 percent from Louisiana.
• New Orleans’ port and gas production are at pre-Katrina levels.
• 80 percent of New Orleans hotels and 62 percent of its restaurants are open.
• all Mississippi’s schools are ready for students.
• federal home rebuilding grants are beginning to flow to people in Mississippi.
• Mississippi’s sales tax revenues are higher than last year.
• nearly all New Orleans’ levees are patched.
A different set of facts, most concerning harder-hit Louisiana, receives less White House attention:
• large parts of New Orleans are uninhabited.
• only one-third of the city’s hospitals and less than half of its schools are reopened.
• nearly 60 percent of homes and businesses lack electricity.
• the levees may never be strengthened to a level that could inspire many residents and businesses to return.
• those who want to rebuild have yet to be told how high to raise homes and the money to do it has yet to get to people in Louisiana.
“I’m telling you, it looks like a war zone,” Landrieu said.
In defense of the administration’s efforts, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino says, “This was never something that we were going to be able to do within a year.”
As Katrina approached the Gulf a year ago, Bush appeared informed, worried and hands-on. But he began taking political hits nearly as soon as the storm hit, as he kept to his planned schedule and waited four days to visit the scene — even then skipping the most desperate areas. He did not venture into the heart of New Orleans for two weeks.
In the six weeks after Katrina and then Hurricane Rita hit the area, though, Bush flew to the Gulf Coast eight times.
He made promises, from guaranteeing that the government “will stay as long as it takes,” to saying Social Security checks would be hurried to the displaced. He pledged to “clear away the legacy of inequality,” in which racial problems exacerbate the region’s poverty. He said he would fix what went wrong with the response.
After that initial flurry, Bush did not return to the Gulf until January, and before Monday had visited just four times in the past 10 months. In the president’s State of the Union address in January, the Katrina disaster rated only a brief mention.
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll this month found that 67 percent of Americans still disapproved of Bush’s handling of Katrina.
Community activist Anne Milling of New Orleans said what is required from Washington is something on par with the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II.
“They’re not thinking creatively and they’re not putting enough muscle behind it,” said Milling, the founder of a group of socially prominent women that draws members of Congress to visit the area.
The administration disputes any suggestion Bush is inattentive because he devotes less public time to the disaster or that his administration lacks vigor. They cite the $110 billion in hurricane aid approved by Congress at Bush’s request, though just $44 billion has been spent.
“The president’s been committed from Day One,” Powell said. “I can assure you he continues to be committed.”
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