Katrina & Beyond


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

This week we're airing a series of stories called Katrina: Where the Money Went. And on this final day, we're focusing on the government's role in the rebuilding effort.

BLOCK: A little more than two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, President Bush flew to New Orleans and delivered a speech in Jackson Square in the French Quarter. The plaza was totally empty. The president wore an open collared shirt, no tie, and spoke with St. Louis Cathedral lit up behind him.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Good evening. I'm speaking to you from the city of New Orleans, nearly empty, still partly underwater and waiting for life and hope to return.

BLOCK: We're going to examine some of the promises the president made that September night to see whether they've been fulfilled. And to do that, we're joined by our White House correspondent, David Greene.

David, you were there in New Orleans for that speech that night. It was a time when the administration had been roundly criticized for its response to Katrina.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

Yeah, it was. That was an eerie night, Melissa. As if New Orleans weren't abandoned enough, they cleared everyone out from the Quarter and Jackson Square and the president's motorcade drove past all the shut down bars and businesses. Pitch black. There were armed troops standing in the dark.

And now if you remember, when Katrina hit the president was already having a tough time. He was at his ranch. The Iraq war was losing popularity and war protestor Cindy Sheehan had shown up at his ranch, and then Katrina hit. His administration took a lot of criticism, and then the White House was trying to figure out a way to show him in command and really regain their footing. And so they decided to have him come to New Orleans and stand there alone in the square and give this speech.

Now television had this almost otherworldly effect, and the cathedral was glowing behind him and it was otherwise very dark. And the president spoke for awhile and placed a lot of money that night, and the reaction among many in New Orleans was to sort of shrug their shoulders, unsure if he would really come through. But even if they were skeptical about what money they were going to get, they certainly had their hands out.

BLOCK: Well, one of the specific things that the president talked about that night was creating what he called a Gulf Opportunity Zone for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

President BUSH: Within this zone, we should provide immediate incentives for job-creating investment, tax relief for small businesses, incentives to companies that create jobs and loans and loan guarantees for small businesses, including minority owned enterprises, to get them up and running again.

BLOCK: Well, David, what's the report card? How is the Gulf Opportunity Zone doing?

GREENE: The report card is pretty good, and this is actually one of the big accomplishments the White House points to. Mr. Bush signed it into law and there's now a swath across the Gulf Coast where businesses can apply for tax relief, in total somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 billion in tax relief to rebuild or expand.

Now the new law has also produced a ton of confusion, and one of the unintended side effects is that tax lawyers in Mississippi and Louisiana are getting a whole lot more business to help people figure things out.

One of the debates in Congress also is over whether casinos can jump on some of this tax relief and there was a compromise that allowed them to take advantage of the relief to build hotels or restaurants but not the gambling halls themselves. And actually, one of the people who might benefit from this Gulf Opportunity Zone is none other than Donald Trump, who is in a joint venture to build a new casino in Diamond Head near Gulf Port, Mississippi, and they're hoping that they can get some of the tax relief and then the relief from the Gulf Opportunity Zone.

Now some of the president's critics said he focused a little bit too much on tax cuts - which as we know, he likes - instead of finding other ways to help. But a pretty good report on this so far.

BLOCK: Okay. Well, here's another proposal from a year ago and this has to do with the president's goal of getting people back to work.

President BUSH: I propose the creation of Worker Recovery Accounts to help those evacuees who need extra help finding work. Under this plan, the federal government would provide accounts of up to $5,000, which these evacuees could draw upon for job training and education to help them get a good job, and for child care expenses during their job search.

GREENE: Melissa, this was a big promise from the president that has not been fulfilled. This was money he hoped to offer people to use to pay for education, more job training, even to pay for taxis to go to job interviews, and the idea is still stuck in Congress.

Some were actually surprised he even proposed it that night. A couple years before he had made a similar proposal to help people who were out of work find a job. Democrats didn't really like the idea because they feared it would replace traditional unemployment insurance and some Republicans didn't like it either because they thought it was essentially an expensive new government program. So a bit of a surprise that the president took another stab at it as part of his speech.

BLOCK: The president talked there in Jackson Square about the history of poverty in New Orleans and elsewhere in the Gulf region, and he talked - one of his proposals had to do with housing programs to help with that.

Let's listen to a bit of what he had to say.

President BUSH: To help lower-income citizens in the hurricane region build new and better lives, I also propose that Congress pass an Urban Homesteading Act. Under this approach, we will identify property in the region owned by the federal government and provide building sites to low-income citizens free of charge, through a lottery. In return, they would pledge to build on the lot, with either a mortgage or help from a charitable organization like Habitat for Humanity.

BLOCK: David, how's that been working?

GREENE: Not good so far. This plan is also stuck in Congress. It was one of those ideas that night that sounded good at the time, and Mr. Bush made it sound pretty easy. That you would find federal property that could be used for housing, make it happen, get housing built, and get people living there quickly.

It's hard to say exactly why nothing has happened. The White House points to Congress and says look, we proposed a good idea. Lawmakers have to act on it. Now critics of Mr. Bush say if he really is committed to doing something like this, he could be doing a bit more lobbying on Capitol Hill.

BLOCK: David, if you total up what the president was proposing that night, can you give us a sense of the lump sum of what would have been involved in federal spending?

GREENE: He didn't talk about numbers that night but this summer, the Brooking Institute, a think tank in Washington, has been studying how much the federal government has committed to all of these programs in the last year and their tally is in the neighborhood of $108 billion. That's for Hurricanes Katrina as well as Rita and Wilma. Obviously, a good portion of it for Katrina.

It's worth noting a lot of that money was for emergency housing for cleanup, for debris removal and not for long term rebuilding. So a lot of people think that Washington is going to be spending a lot more, perhaps more than $200 billion in the end.

In the speech in Jackson Square, the president said he wanted a lot of help not necessarily to come from the federal government, but to come from private donations and people coming to the region and volunteering. I think we have some of the tape here from him that night.

President BUSH: I've asked USA Freedom Corps to create an information clearinghouse, available at usafreedomcorps.gov, so that families anywhere in the country can find opportunities to help families in the region, or a school can support a school. And I challenge existing organizations - churches and Scout troops or labor union locals - to get in touch with their counterparts in Mississippi, Louisiana or Alabama and learn what they can do to help.

BLOCK: David, we know there was a lot of private money coming in at the start. Has that continued?

GREENE: It seems to be. The Nonprofit Foundation Center tracks giving from corporations and foundations. They say that there's been about $600 million coming in from those entities, and there are estimates that range in the several billion dollar range from private donations. Of course, if you compare that to the more than $100 billion coming from the government, there's not really a comparison at all, but there is money coming in.

And in terms of the president's promise to make a government clearinghouse for information about giving and volunteering, it does exist. If you go to the USA Freedom Corps website, you can click around and it's pretty easy to see where you can send money and where the volunteer opportunities are if you're interested in going down there.

BLOCK: Well, the president a year ago in that speech did address to some extent the short comings of his administration in responding to Hurricane Katrina, and he talked about how the federal government should be better prepared for a disaster like that in the future. Let's listen.

President BUSH: Four years after the frightening experience of September 11, Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency. When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I as president am responsible for the problem and for the solution. So I've ordered every cabinet secretary to participate in a comprehensive review of the government response to the hurricane. This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina.

BLOCK: And David, has the government learned those lessons?

GREENE: I don't think anyone knows yet, Melissa. There were various reports done even by the White House itself that found the government was in many ways a mess. Some of the congressional reports were even tougher, criticizing the president himself.

The White House now says the military should play a much larger role in future storms and that could bring up all kinds of legal questions about what the U.S. military can do when it's deployed within U.S. borders.

Even after a year there's also still so many complaints from the Gulf Coast about FEMA and why trailers haven't arrived after all this time, why so many people are still out of their homes. The bottom line - we just might know until the next big storm if the White House and government has done their job and fixed what was so clearly wrong.

BLOCK: David, thanks very much.

GREENE: Thanks for having me, Melissa.

BLOCK: NPR White House correspondent David Greene talking about the pledges made by President Bush about a year ago from Jackson Square in New Orleans.

SIEGEL: And you can check on the fitful recovery in New Orleans on our before and after slide show at NPR.org.

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