President Bush Returns to New Orleans

President Bush is in New Orleans for the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. He and wife Laura Bush are expected to mark the day at a New Orleans charter school and at a community center in Mississippi. Officials continue to bicker over who's to blame in the aftermath of the storm.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

NPR White House correspondent David Greene covered that speech in 2005, and he is watching the president's return to New Orleans today.

David, good morning.

DAVID GREENE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: He spoke of the city rising again. What progress can the president point to?

GREENE: Well, in large part, the president and the White House point to money. The president promised, you know, support in that speech in Jackson Square. The federal government has provided $116 billion and most of that has been tapped.

Now, a lot of that money was for disaster relief, not for rebuilding. But Mr. Bush's point man for Gulf Coast recovery Don Powell was on Air Force One last night and stressing the federal government is paying to strengthen the levees in the city. And one of the programs the feds are paying for is called Road Home. That's the direct assistance program to people who lost their homes.

And there's one woman I actually called up yesterday. Her name is Ethel Williams(ph). She's 74 years old. And I've been following her story since the storm. The president visited her in the Upper Ninth Ward after the hurricane, promised she'd be back. And Mr. Bush asked if she'd cook him some gumbo once she was back in her house. And her house has been vacant and ruined for two years.

And now she told me she just got her Road Home check last week, more than $100,000. But she's one of the lucky ones, Steve. Out of the 184,000 people in the city who've applied for the money, only 42,000 have gotten their check. And it doesn't look like there's going to be enough money in the program for everyone.

So the population is coming back, there are encouraging signs. But the bottom line is, the city - a lot of the city still looks ruined. And as people criticized President Bush, they'd say it's a matter of leadership. You know, he's been here 15 times but, you know, he didn't mention the city in his last State of the Union address and people say he should be doing more.

INSKEEP: And the president will be moving around the city where, what, about half of the population is still somewhere else.

GREENE: That's right. He'll be moving around today but not much. He's traveled around the city before. But this time he's only making a few stops. He came here last night and had dinner with Mayor Ray Nagin and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. They ate at New Orleans landmark, a restaurant called Dooky Chase. And it's still not opened yet, but they opened their doors early for Mr. Bush. They're re-opening in a few weeks.

And the president this morning is going to a charter school and he's having some meetings on education. And he's going to hold a moment of silence to mark that moment when the levees broke here in the city. And then he moves on after that to Mississippi.

INSKEEP: Although, you mentioned the mayor, Ray Nagin. I understand he's not going to be silent during that moment of silence.

GREENE: He won't be silent. The schedules as of yesterday were for Ray Nagin to actually be at a bell ringing at the same moment that the president is holding a moment of silence.

And, you know, Steve, I don't think we can help seeing some sort of metaphor there for the level of coordination between the federal government and local officials here. And, you know, still yesterday the White House was pointing out what their responsibility is, what the responsibility is of state and local officials. There's still this bickering going on about who's to blame.

And I have to say that the frustration in the city is not just for President Bush. There's - Democrats aren't spared. There's a lot of general frustration at the political establishment in the sense of, if we're going to move on, it's going to be without guaranteed support from our government.

INSKEEP: David, good talking with you.

GREENE: You too, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent David Greene.

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President Bush Marks Hurricane Katrina Anniversary

President Bush marked the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by recapping the federal government's involvement in helping to rebuild New Orleans, which was devastated after levees failed.

"My attitude is this: New Orleans, better days are ahead," the president told a group of officials, including Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Donald Powell, who is the federal government's top liaison, and educators.

But the region is far from its former self after two years of slow responses, according to some in New Orleans.

The government earmarked $114 billion to help New Orleans, and President Bush said that so far 80 percent of the funds have been disbursed or made available.

"Don and I will try to work through the bureaucracy in Washington just like folks down here are trying to work through the bureaucracy to make sure that there are adequate plans for the money," he told those gathered at the Martin Luther King charter school, the first public school to open in the city's blighted Lower 9th Ward.

"We're here to herald excellence and to thank the folks at this school, which is a beacon of hope," Bush said.

President Bush said that the government had provided Louisiana with more than $700 million in emergency education funds, and touted that 80 schools were due to open this fall.

"It's money spent on construction, it's money spent on creating incentives for teachers to return, it's money spent to make sure (that school districts got reimbursed for) children who went to other school districts. It was good money spent because education needs to be the No. 1 priority of the state," Bush said.

It is the president's 15th visit to the Gulf Coast since the massive hurricane obliterated the coastal region and inundated most of the Big Easy on Aug. 29, 2005 — but only his second stop in these parts since last year's anniversary.

Hurricane Katrina made landfall south of New Orleans at 6:10 a.m. Aug. 29, 2005, as a strong Category 3 hurricane that flooded 80 percent of the city and killed more than 1,600 people in Louisiana and Mississippi. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

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.

Still, the biggest hurdle continues to be the weakened levee systems, Bush recognized. He pledged to better the storm and flood protection infrastructure to a 100-year protection level by 2011, and to fund a $1.3 billion network of interior drainage projects to ensure the area has better hurricane protection.

"The levee system is a federal responsibility and we will meet our responsibility. And obviously, we're going to work together with the state and local governments as well," he said.

Parts 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 up rents for those that are available. Crime is rampant and police operate out of trailers.

President Bush also boasted of commitments to help with local law enforcement. He also said the Veteran's Administration is going to build a medical center in downtown New Orleans.

But locals are weary with waiting, and say the government's priorities are confused.

"The federal government still seems to place a higher priority on troop surges in Iraq than on storm surges in our part of the world," New Orleans resident Walter L. Bonam wrote in an op-ed in Wednesday's edition of the The Times-Picayune.

President Bush and wife Laura also plan to spend a part of Hurricane Katrina's anniversary remembering the storm in Bay St. Louis, Miss.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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