Katrina & Beyond

President Bush Speaks in New Orleans

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To mark the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush spoke to students Wednesday in New Orleans. To mark the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush spoke to students Wednesday in New Orleans. Mr. Bush spoke at a charter school in the lower Ninth Ward, one of the areas hardest hit by the hurricane.


From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Alex Cohen.

Coming up, how dangerous is the arsenic that's been found in the soil of some schoolyards in New Orleans.

CHADWICK: First, on this second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush went to the city it nearly destroyed, New Orleans. The president visited a school and then stopped for a moment of silence to honor the people who died in the floods that swamped much of the city.

NPR White House correspondent David Greene is in New Orleans with the president. David, welcome, and tell us about the president's visit to this school.

DAVID GREENE: Thank you, Alex. Yeah, the president came to a charter school in the Lower Ninth Ward. And he had that moment of silence, the time in the morning when the state and city recognizes when the first levee broke during the storm. And then the president spoke with some students standing behind him. He said in his view the city of New Orleans is coming back. And he talked about, you know, that he visited New Orleans after the storm but that his commitment goes beyond just that night. And I think we have a little bit of tape to play of the president here.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: One thing to come and give a speech in Jackson Square, it's another thing to keep paying attention to whether or not progress is being made. And I hope people understand we do, we're still paying attention. We understand.

GREENE: It's pretty extraordinary that Mr. Bush has to tell people in New Orleans that he's paying attention two years after this pretty massive storm.

CHADWICK: But he does make a point of doing this at a school rather than Jackson Square, which is a better-known venue, certainly, and the symbolic one that he chose to speak from a couple of years ago.

GREENE: Yeah, I was - it was sort of curious and it's tough to get inside the mind of the White House and how they decide to design events. But certainly his visit to Jackson Square felt, you know, loftier. This was a quieter event down here in the Lower Ninth Ward, away from other city officials, and it gave the speech more of a feel of nuts and bolts. The federal government is doing its responsibility. It's filling its obligations that it made to New Orleans. And the president also used the school to talk about education, and he said a public school is opening and public education in New Orleans is one area of real progress. I have a little bit more tape here to play from there.

Pres. BUSH: There is nothing more hopeful than a good school system. And I firmly believe that excellence and education is going to be the leading edge of change for New Orleans.

GREENE: And you know, we talked to, you know, some of the people here. One art teacher said that the students really are still having trouble coping. You know, they've been coming to class the last couple of weeks after the summer and they've been doing sorts of activities. One art teacher told us about the memory box. She had students draw pictures and design some of their memories from the storm and she said one little boy wanted to draw the Superdome because he was there, and so the memory is still clearly really fresh.

CHADWICK: So what kind of reaction is the president getting there? Because he wants to talk about progress and the things that the federal government has done that have helped New Orleans.

GREENE: One thing he points to is money. The federal government has promised $114 billion. Now, we should say a lot of that was for disaster relief, not for rebuilding, but the White House says that a lot of that money has already been tapped by the state. And also the levees - the White House, President Bush and also his staff, are pointing a lot to the levees as sort of a box that the White House has to fill. It was our job to fix the levees and we're doing it. So still, a little bit of bickering between the various levels of government as to who is supposed to be doing the work.

CHADWICK: David, it's a pretty cool reception for the president down there. The mayor, Ray Nagin, didn't bother to go to this ceremony. He held a separate ceremony of his own across the city.

GREENE: Yeah. Well, we should say that the mayor did have dinner with the president last night. He and quarterback Drew Brees from the New Orleans Saints and the governor all ate at a famous Creole restaurant in New Orleans, so not a total snub. But this morning the president and mayor did decide to appear separately. And the mayor actually took part in a bell ringing closer to downtown and the president at this moment of silence at the school.

CHADWICK: NPR White House correspondent David Greene in New Orleans. David, thank you.

GREENE: Thanks, Alex.

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President Bush Marks Hurricane Katrina Anniversary

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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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