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September 29, 2023

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Two years after Hurricane Katrina

NEW ORLEANS – President Bush marked Hurricane Katrina’s deadly strike two years ago yesterday by assuring New Orleans and Mississippi they are getting better. Many residents, still aching over the killer storm and angry their communities are only limping toward what they used to be, begged to differ.

“The government has failed all of us. It’s got to stop,” said Gina Martin, exiled to Houston because Katrina destroyed her eastern New Orleans home.

Martin returned to take part with about 1,000 others in a New Orleans-style protest -anger mixed with dancing and music – against all that remains undone a long two years after one of the worst natural disasters in the nation’s history.

The massive hurricane obliterated coastal Mississippi, buried most of the Big Easy in water and killed 1,600 people when it roared onto land the morning of Aug. 29, 2005.

In New Orleans, the population has rebounded to about 60 percent, and a few neighborhoods thrive. The French Quarter survived Katrina, and the music and restaurant scenes are recovering, as is the port business. Sales tax revenues are approaching normal.

“This town is better today than it was yesterday, and it’s going to be better tomorrow than it was today,” Bush said from the Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School for Science and Technology. The school, though, is the first to reopen in the hard-hit Lower 9th Ward.

“We’re still paying attention. We understand,” he said in New Orleans. Later in Mississippi: “We haven’t forgotten, and won’t.”

But much of New Orleans still looks like a wasteland, with businesses shuttered and houses abandoned. Basic services such as schools, libraries, public transportation and childcare are at half their original levels and only two-thirds of the region’s licensed hospitals are open. Workers are often scarce. Rents have skyrocketed. Crime is rampant.

Along Mississippi’s 70-mile shoreline, harsh economic realities are hampering rebuilding. Cities like Biloxi and Pascagoula are making progress, but areas nearer to Katrina’s original landfall look barely improved, with most oceanfront lots still vacant and weedy.

Many projects are hamstrung by the soaring costs of construction and insurance, while federal funding has been slow to flow to cities. Other economic indicators are down-such as population, employment and housing supplies.

The performance by the president and the federal government in the immediate aftermath of the storm severely dented Bush’s image as a take-charge leader. So, 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 his promise 2 1/2 weeks after the storm that “we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild.”

On his 15th post-storm visit to the Gulf Coast-but only his second since last year’s anniversary-Bush trumpeted the $114 billion that the federal government has committed to the region. Most of it, though, has been for disaster relief, not long-term recovery. And there is much finger-pointing about which bureaucracy is to blame that more money, particularly for home-rebuilding in Louisiana, has not yet reached citizens.

The president pointed to bridge construction, levee fortification and reopened schools.

“There’s been a lot of progress made, and that’s what people have go to understand,” he said, the ongoing rebuilding of a vital two-mile bridge connecting in Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian, Miss., visible behind him. Two of the span’s lanes finally were completed in May, with the other two slated for November-well after a parallel railroad bridge was completed by the private sector, to locals’ dismay.

Kim Griffin, a New Orleans native and the designer of a bronze angel statue to be erected at the center of a Katrina memorial, said Bush’s visit was uplifting. “As long as he was in the city, he was showing he cared, and that’s important right now,” she said.

Presidential candidates from both parties weighed in, decrying the government’s performance and promising better. Democrat John Edwards, who launched his campaign from New Orleans, was the most scathing. “If George Bush’s government were as good and decent and focused as the people of New Orleans, whole parts of the city would not still look like the storm just hit,” he said.

Choosing a charter school and a new mixed-income housing development as his backdrops in New Orleans, the president appeared to showcase the city as a laboratory for how his belief in smaller, more market-based government could remake a community.

“The hurricane was disastrous for many reasons, but it also gave a great opportunity for a new way forward,” he said.

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