Bush plays booster in chief of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans and Mississippi coast
NEW ORLEANS – President Bush spent about two hours in New Orleans on Thursday, whisking through the city in his motorcade and meeting with local officials in a neighborhood that suffered little damage from the ruinous flooding that Hurricane Katrina brought.Still, the president said he witnessed a “pretty dynamic” change for the better since his last visit three months ago.It was much the same later in Bay St. Louis, Miss., which the storm shattered mostly to sticks. Though the president was driven past thousands of snapped trees, debris still hanging from limbs and piled high in lots, yard after yard with nothing more than concrete foundations and little evidence of new construction, he emphasized progress.”We’ve come a long way in four months,” Bush said from the gymnasium at St. Stanislaus College, across the street from enormous piles of broken lumber. “And a lot more is going to happen in the next four months and the next four months.”It was the president’s first trip to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast since an Oct. 10-11 trip to Louisiana and Mississippi.Dropping in on two of the areas hardest-hit by Katrina, he liberally laced remarks with references to the many daunting problems that remain four months later – a lack of housing in New Orleans, the slow pace of Small Business Administration loans, fears of not enough skilled workers, problems with homeowner insurance payments, the urgent need for bridge rebuilding.”People in faraway places like Washington, D.C., still hear you and care about you,” he said in Bay St. Louis. “I recognize there’s some rough spots. … We’re going to work to make them as smooth as possible.”Bush also promised Gulf Coast residents that his administration is learning the lessons of its too-slow and much-criticized response to Katrina. “We want to know how to make it better,” he said. “I just want to assure you, we are, we are.”But in New Orleans, especially, the president played booster in chief. Before a colorful mural of jazz musicians, a riverboat, masked Mardi Gras revelers and crawfish, he suggested it as a great place for a convention and as an attractive tourist destination with “some of the greatest food in the world and some wonderful fun.”Bush praised the city’s success in getting services like electricity and water mostly on line, said new federal tax incentives will encourage businesses to create jobs and insisted stronger promised levee protection will make the city both safer and more attractive for investment. All those things, he said, will help turn New Orleans back into a “shining part of the South.””I will tell you, the contrast between when I was last here and today is pretty dramatic,” a smiling president said before meeting privately with local government officials and small business owners in a gleaming visitor’s center in the mostly unscathed Lower Garden District.But many of New Orleans’ neighborhoods still are abandoned wastelands of uninhabitable homes and sidewalks piled with moldy garbage. Barely a quarter of the city’s former population of nearly half a million has returned yet and it’s not clear how many more will.And Bush’s visit came one day after initial city rebuilding proposals were unveiled to residents who reacted angrily, particularly to the suggestion that worst-hit neighborhoods have just four months to prove they should be rebuilt.Some of the president’s language in New Orleans recalled the more pilloried statements from his first stop in the region four days after Katrina struck.On that visit, he laughingly lauded the increasingly desperate city as great because it was where he used to “enjoy myself – occasionally too much.” On Thursday, he said the New Orleans of today “is reminding me of the city I used to come to visit.”Bush also called the city “a heckuva place to bring your family” – a reminder of his endorsement of Michael Brown, then chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job,” Bush said then to the man who was seen by many as the face of the clumsy and who eventually gave up his post amid the criticism.Bush made eight trips to the Gulf Coast in the six weeks after Katrina hit. Lately, the president has been eager to show his attention to Katrina victims has not faded, and Thursday’s trip was intended to signal that Katrina recovery ranks in the top tier of his priorities for 2006.The president ended the day headlining a fundraiser in Palm Beach, Fla. He helped scoop up $4 million for the national Republican Party and various GOP candidates at the sprawling oceanfront mega-mansion of homebuilder and Washington Redskins co-owner Dwight Schar.