Bush Visits New Orleans, Avoiding Protesters

President Bush and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin i i

President Bush and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, right, participate in a roundtable discussion with small business owners and community leaders in New Orleans, Jan. 12, 2006. Larry Downing/Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Larry Downing/Reuters
President Bush and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin

President Bush and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, right, participate in a roundtable discussion with small business owners and community leaders in New Orleans, Jan. 12, 2006.

Larry Downing/Reuters

President Bush toured the Gulf Coast Thursday, noting improvements since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans, the president did not tour any of the city's still-deserted neighborhoods, and protesters called for a stronger federal commitment to fortify the city's levees.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

The federal budget deficit is climbing again. The White House yesterday blamed spending on Hurricane Katrina for pushing the annual deficit over $400 billion. That's more than 60 billion over previous predictions. The announcement came as President Bush returned to the Gulf Coast, and NPR's Don Gonyea went along.

DON GONYEA reporting:

President Bush arrived in New Orleans as the hard work of recovery and cleanup drag on, along with heated debates over which neighborhoods can be saved. The president was determined not to weigh in on such debates, saying at each stop that it's up to local officials to come up with a plan. In a roundtable session with the mayor and business owners in New Orleans, he seemed mostly intent on boosting morale. `Things are getting better,' he said.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I will tell you, the contrast between when I was last here and today, Steven, is pretty dramatic. It may be hard for you to see, but from when I first came here to today, New Orleans--it reminded me of the city I used to come to visit. It's a heck of a place to bring your family. It's a great place to find some of the greatest food in the world and some wonderful fun.

GONYEA: But the president's tour did not include any of the city's still deserted neighborhoods. He was in the Garden District, where there was no flooding. He also avoided Jackson Square, where protesters gathered yesterday.

(Soundbite of rally)

Protesters: (In unison) ...(Unintelligible)

GONYEA: New Orleans resident Shawn Hollihan says she lost everything when floodwaters rose. Hollihan and others are angry that despite the federal government's allocation of $85 billion so far to help the Gulf Coast rebuild, there's still no commitment to improve New Orleans levees so they can withstand a Category 5 hurricane.

Ms. SHAWN HOLLIHAN (New Orleans Resident): Bush was over here four months ago to tell the world that the nation was going to see the greatest recovery New Orleans has ever seen. Well, that's not going to happen unless the federal government comes up with sufficient funding for the issues.

GONYEA: Organizers said the protest was non-partisan. They just want better levees. Some demonstrators held signs which read: `Party affiliation: Louisianan.' If the president saw only the best parts of New Orleans yesterday, the day's second stop did reveal the kind of damage and destruction that people are still dealing with. In the Gulf Coast town of Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, the presidential motorcade rolled past blocks of destruction, large trees broken in half, closed businesses with parking lots full of debris and lots of destroyed homes. The president spoke at a Catholic prep school.

Pres. BUSH: Sometimes hurricanes go through and, you know, there's a home and a structure you can maybe put a roof on or do something. Not here. Our fellow citizens have got to know, when this hurricane hit, it just obliterated everything. It just flattened it.

GONYEA: But the president, focusing again on the positive, also predicted a building boom for the region and continued support from Washington. That's a reminder people seem to want and a commitment they say they need the president to make good on. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi.

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