As next week’s anniversary of Hurricane Katrina triggers recollections of rooftop refugees and massive devastation along the Gulf Coast, the White House has begun a public relations blitz to counteract Democrats’ plans to use the government’s tardy response and the region’s slow recovery in the coming congressional elections.
President Bush will visit the area Monday and Tuesday, including an overnight stay in New Orleans. He probably will visit the city’s Lower 9th Ward, the heavily black area that remains mired in debris, and is expected to meet with storm victims.
The trip will force Bush to revisit sensitive racial issues that arose with the flooding of New Orleans; at that time, civil rights leaders charged that the White House was slow to respond because so many victims were black. GOP strategists acknowledged that the administration’s failure to act quickly was a significant setback in their efforts to court traditionally Democratic African American voters.
The White House announced Bush’s visit Tuesday as a phalanx of administration officials stood before reporters to argue that billions of dollars had flowed to the region and millions more was on the way. The plans for the trip were disclosed one day after Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales announced that he was sending additional lawyers and resources to the city to fight fraud and abuse.
At Tuesday’s briefing, White House aides passed out folders and fact sheets that painted a picture of aggressive recovery efforts. A packet from the Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for the levees that were breached after the storm, carried the slogan: “One Team: Relevant, Ready, Responsible, Reliable.”
Donald E. Powell, the White House official in charge of recovery plans, declared that Bush was “fulfilling his commitment to rebuild the Gulf Coast better and stronger.”
The administration’s coordinated response is the latest example of White House officials maneuvering to cast a positive light on a campaign issue expected to hurt Republicans. Just this week, Bush acknowledged public anxiety over Katrina, along with concern about the war in Iraq and rising gasoline prices. But he defended his record and accused the Democrats of weakness, particularly on national security issues.
The White House effort comes as the Democrats, who plan to challenge Republicans on national security in this year’s midterm election campaign, are portraying the government’s response to Katrina as evidence that Bush failed to fix inadequacies exposed by the Sept. 11 attacks.
A report being released today by top Democrats, titled “Broken Promises: The Republican Response to Katrina,” features a picture of Bush during his Sept. 15, 2005, speech in New Orleans’ Jackson Square, in which he promised to oversee “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.”
The report argues that every aspect of recovery -- including housing, business loans, healthcare, education and preparedness -- “suffers from a failed Republican response marked by unfulfilled promises, cronyism, waste, fraud, and abuse.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is scheduled to spend Thursday in New Orleans with fellow Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana to kick off what they call the “Hope and Recovery Tour.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco plans to arrive this weekend with about 20 other Democrats for additional events.
White House officials declined Tuesday to offer many details of Bush’s trip. Spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush would travel Monday to two Mississippi towns devastated by the storm, Gulfport and Biloxi, before arriving in New Orleans. He is expected to attend an ecumenical worship service at New Orleans’ St. Louis Cathedral, the backdrop to his Jackson Square address.
Leaders of the recovery effort said Tuesday that although progress had been slow in some areas, Bush would be able to point to successes in some New Orleans neighborhoods, including the famed French Quarter and the Garden District. However, neither area was damaged as severely as the Lower 9th Ward. The question for White House schedulers is how much to accentuate the positives while acknowledging the negatives.
“If you go to most of the city you see enormous progress,” said Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute and vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. “They are probably going to go to the Lower 9th Ward, which is very honest of them, because that’s the place you see the least progress.”
Isaacson, a New Orleans native, said he considered many of the Democrats’ critiques to be unfair. He credited the White House with safeguarding millions of dollars in grants for housing and levee reconstruction, some of which was only approved this summer amid a contentious budget debate.
“They protected that housing money and the levee money in the appropriation process when every congressman was looking at it greedily,” he said.
On Monday, Bush offered a preview of his anniversary message, contending at a news conference that despite frustrations about the slow arrival of housing funds and delays in debris removal, “the money has been appropriated, the formula is in place, and now it’s time to move forward.”
He suggested that $110 billion in federal funds had been “committed” to help the region rebuild, but confusion persisted Tuesday over what portion of that money had actually been spent.
During the White House briefing, Powell said that about $44 billion, about 40% of the total, had been distributed to hurricane victims, but suggested that state and local governments were mostly to blame for the gap.
The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, R. David Paulison, was contrite about mistakes made during the disaster aftermath. Paulison, who won Senate confirmation in May, a week before the 2006 hurricane season began, was named acting director in September after Michael D. Brown was forced to resign as FEMA director amid criticism of the federal response.
“Our communications system was broken -- it was broken between the local community and the state, it was broken between the state and the federal government, and it was broken within the federal government,” Paulison said. “That was the first thing we had to fix.”
Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.