Katrina & Beyond

President Advises 'Optimism' in Katrina Recovery

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President Bush visits New Orleans on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's assault on the Gulf Coast. While the president continues to face criticism of his handling of the disaster, Bush told people in Mississippi that "optimism is the only option" for the future.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

President Bush is in New Orleans this morning. He's marking the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Yesterday, the president surveyed hurricane damage and recovery efforts in Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi. The president's tour continues today as he continues to face criticism of his handling of the disaster.

NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea is traveling with the president. He's on the line from New Orleans. Don, good morning.

DON GONYEA reporting:

Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's the president saying?

GONYEA: Well, this seems to be part pep talk for local residents in the president's presentation here yesterday, and expected again today. At one point in Biloxi during his remarks, he described the hurricane recovery effort by saying - this is a quote - optimism is the only option.

Also a part of his mission here is to restate his pledge of continued federal support, and certainly part of it is an effort to rehabilitate the Mr. Bush's own damaged image and reputation in the wake of the storm. There has been no talk from the president of the failures of a year ago, except for just general reference to lessons learned after a comprehensive review of the storm.

INSKEEP: Well, let's give a listen, if we can, to the president speaking yesterday.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, 110 billion - the - you know, hopefully that'll work. Hopefully that's enough. It's certainly enough to get us through the next - you know, next period of time. And the hardest part has been to get the state reconstruction efforts up and running.

INSKEEP: That's President Bush speaking yesterday in Mississippi. We're on the line with NPR's Don Gonyea. Don, is the president saying the federal government has done its job and now it's up to state and local officials?

GONYEA: In a way he does seem to be saying that, at least in terms of how much money is going to come out of Washington. Steve, he has, in the past, said he's satisfied with the $110 billion that has been committed from Washington by the Congress. But this is the first time he really said to people, don't count on this being a never-ending supply of money, and that is significant.

INSKEEP: And some of the hardest work I guess is going to be where he is now, in Louisiana.

GONYEA: That's right. That's right. But, you know, one thing he did yesterday was really praise the state of Mississippi. He's saying that kind of that the onus is back on the states. And the White House has, in the past, said that Mississippi seems to be moving at a little better pace than Louisiana has been. Let's hear what he said yesterday when he was in Gulfport about Mississippi's efforts so far.

President BUSH: You can't drive through this state without seeing signs of recovery and renewal. It's just impossible to miss the signs of hope. And you've done it the old fashioned way - with vision and hard work and resolve. Some of the hardest work is still ahead.

INSKEEP: Is he going to see so many signs of renewal where you are now in New Orleans?

GONYEA: Well, the message is clear and not too subtle in that comment that Louisiana really does need to catch up, that it needs to get a plan for the city to really kind of get things together and to figure out how to get money to the people who need it.

Certainly some of the president's critics say politics is a part of this, that Mississippi has a Republican governor, it's a Republican state, that he's been lavishing them with praise. Louisiana's Governor Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Nagin are Democrats. They have often clashed with the president over the past year.

But in Louisiana, in New Orleans, he is seeing a place where there is a great deal more devastation than what he saw yesterday in Mississippi. The flooding here put 80 percent of the city under water. It was really a disaster that was unlike what other parts of the Gulf Coast experienced after Katrina. Mayor Ray Nagin says that makes for a unique situation, that it will take longer, that it's a more complicated job.

Still, the president's pledge yesterday was that New Orleans - he said, it will rise again. He didn't offer a timeline, but he did say that in ten years it will be hard to imagine that the city once looked like it looks today.

INSKEEP: Don, thanks very much.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea. He's traveling with the president in New Orleans on this anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

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Will Bush's Peak and Low Point Be Reversed?

President Bush at Ground Zero i

President Bush speaks to rescue workers, firefighters and police officers from the rubble of Ground Zero on Sept. 14, 2001, in New York City. Eric Draper/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Eric Draper/Getty Images
President Bush at Ground Zero

President Bush speaks to rescue workers, firefighters and police officers from the rubble of Ground Zero on Sept. 14, 2001, in New York City.

Eric Draper/Getty Images
President Bush looks at Katrina damage i

President Bush looks out over the devastation from Hurricane Katrina as he heads back to Washington, D.C., Aug. 31, 2005, aboard Air Force One. Paul Morse/White House/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Paul Morse/White House/Getty Images
President Bush looks at Katrina damage

President Bush looks out over the devastation from Hurricane Katrina as he heads back to Washington, D.C., Aug. 31, 2005, aboard Air Force One.

Paul Morse/White House/Getty Images

Two notable anniversaries mean two weeks of highly predictable media frenzy are upon us. Many days of remembering Hurricane Katrina will give way to even more days of recalling the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In this long fortnight of reflection, we will hear 9/11 described as the zenith of Bush's presidency — Katrina as the nadir. Many will say the president's resolute response to 9/11 revealed the man at his best, while his failure to grasp the disaster in New Orleans exposed him at his weakest.

Such notions are hard to deny with respect to the first hours or days of these disparate crises. But as days become years, the federal government's long-term response to Katrina may well achieve more good than the Bush administration's long-term response to 9/11.

However tempting it may be now to call 9/11 the president's finest moment — and Katrina the opposite — history may well reverse both judgments.

Let us first consider the case of the 9/11 response. In the media, it seemed heroic. All of us can picture the president with a bullhorn at Ground Zero. We can see him standing before the Congress and the nation a few days later. Both times his words were simple, direct and ringing with reassurance.

Words were followed by deeds. Within a few weeks, an expeditionary force was making good on an ultimatum the Bush administration issued to the Taliban government, which had harbored al-Qaida in Afghanistan. That regime was soon overthrown, and in the ensuing months, the country moved toward democracy and social liberalization. President Bush and Vice President Cheney often cited Afghanistan as a success story.

As the months became years, however, the situation in Afghanistan got shakier. As U.S. forces left and international peacekeepers arrived, a resurgent Taliban began making inroads again. It's hard to know who will hold Kabul in 2010 or beyond.

Meanwhile, the Bush-Cheney post-9/11 doctrine of pre-emptive defense had moved on into Iraq. The connection between al-Qaida and the regime of Saddam Hussein was less than clear, but it made its way into many administration speeches nonetheless. To bolster the case for an invasion, the White House also pressed allegations that Saddam had or would soon have weapons of mass destruction. In the election season of autumn 2002, Congress felt the pressure and went along. The following spring, the United States invaded and toppled Saddam. For a brief period, it appeared to be another success story.

But over the past three years, Iraq has proven far more daunting a challenge than the White House expected. Insurgents loyal to Saddam fought on after his fall. Tensions between Iraq's religious and ethnic factions led to sectarian violence and then to the verge of civil war. American forces suffered casualties: more than 2,600 dead and several times that number severely wounded. Iraqis have died by the tens of thousands and continue to die at a rate of 2,000 a month in Baghdad alone.

Now President Bush says U.S. forces will not leave Iraq so long as he is president, implying they may need to remain far longer. And the dream of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East seems no closer to fruition. What will be the legacy of this policy in 2010 and beyond?

Now let us consider the quite different trajectory of administration policy on the Gulf Coast. This time, things began badly. In the media, the Katrina response was as much a disaster as the 9/11 response was a triumph. Even after the storm struck and the levees broke, the president seemed reluctant to leave vacation mode. We saw an impassive president gazing out a window on Air Force One, thousands of feet above the devastation.

Soon the world saw thousands of human beings marooned and bereft in New Orleans and elsewhere. Deep doubts shrouded government at all levels, not sparing the White House. Congressional hearings were held that pounded presidential minions from Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The president's approval ratings drooped into the low 40s, then dropped into the low 30s. Although gas prices, Iraq and other issues contributed, Katrina was the blow that sent this president reeling. He has yet to recover, and staff shakeups have been only partially successful at righting the ship.

Yet this is where the Katrina trajectory should start curving upward. The prospects for the Gulf Coast's recovery are good, if guarded, for now. The federal wheels grind slowly, but more than $110 billion has been committed so far, and about $77 billion has been paid out. And while some of this has been wasted, much has had substantial effect. As the president himself has highlighted, much of Mississippi's storm-ravaged area is coming back after just one year.

In time, and with sadness, New Orleans too will be rebuilt. It will be smaller, more compact and more defensible. There will be less residential acreage as the least habitable, lowest-lying areas are abandoned. Once restored, the levees should be more reliable. Future efforts to prevent flooding and encourage timely evacuation are likely to be taken more seriously than in the past. Some even believe the city may enjoy a new era of comparatively clean, responsible government. And in any event, few doubt that the indomitable spirit of New Orleans will return.

So, by the year 2010 or beyond, the trajectory of federal policy in this area will have brought positive results. And in that, it will contrast sharply with the policies adopted in response to 9/11.

Maybe the president soared when the tall towers of the World Trade Center came down, and maybe he sank when the waters around New Orleans rose. But in each instance, that was only the beginning. And in each instance, those of us who witness the later chapters may see quite a different story unfold.

Ron Elving co-hosts It's All Politics, a weekly podcast, with NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin.

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