President Bush delivered a message of perseverance and hope Tuesday to a city still struggling with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, renewing his pledge to help New Orleans recover and declaring that the next hurricane would be met with a better response than occurred a year ago.
He also took responsibility for his administration’s much-criticized initial response to the storm.
In the midst of the otherwise sober commemorations of the first anniversary of Katrina, Bush made two last-minute stops that brought him in touch with the city’s music and one of its icons -- and with the uniqueness of New Orleans.
He delivered a National Medal of Arts to Antoine “Fats” Domino to replace the one lost when the singer’s home in the Lower 9th Ward was destroyed. And at a rebuilt home in the Upper 9th, he hoisted a television camera and recorded a cameraman who, at the president’s suggestion, had picked up a tambourine to accompany blues musicians playing there.
Bush spent much of the day in the city, where, in the impoverished Lower 9th, the French Quarter and more affluent neighborhoods, the memories of a year ago were inescapable.
With about 1,000 others, the president and his wife, Laura, attended a Roman Catholic Mass at St. Louis Cathedral. At 9:39 a.m., the congregation knelt for two minutes of silent prayer to mark the first breach of the levees, a catastrophic event that eventually flooded 80% of the city.
Moments before Bush arrived, the organist slipped in a musical message of optimism: a few bars of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” albeit at a reverential tempo.
The cathedral, in the French Quarter, overlooks Jackson Square, where Bush addressed the nation Sept. 15, committing the federal government to a massive effort to revive one of the nation’s oldest and most distinctive cities.
On Tuesday, he saluted the volunteers who helped revive New Orleans, called on corporations to continue contributing to that renewal, and delivered a daunting assessment of work still to be done. In promising a better response to the next hurricane, he was silently acknowledging the failures of a year ago.
Bush spoke to more than 400 people in the auditorium at Warren Easton Senior High School, the oldest public school in the city.
Closed since the storm, which filled classrooms and corridors with 10 feet of water, it is scheduled to reopen Sept. 7 as a charter school.
“Step one of rebuilding is to assure people, if another hurricane comes, there will be a better, more effective response,” Bush said.
He said that relief supplies were sent to the region before the start of the current hurricane season and that the 350-mile levee system had been largely restored to its pre-Katrina strength. Many levees, he said, were stronger than before the storm.
But the tasks remaining, he said, include making the streets safer, building homes and removing broken furniture, refrigerators and other storm debris. Roughly 75% of the debris has been cleared, said Donald Powell, Bush’s coordinator of the recovery effort.
“This anniversary is not an end.... We will stand with the people of southern Louisiana and southern Mississippi until the job is done,” Bush said.
He noted that some residents still did not know whether they had a neighborhood to which they could return, others were living in trailers, many were separated from family and lacked jobs, and many feared for their safety “because of violent criminals.”
“I take full responsibility for the federal government’s response,” Bush said, adding that the pledge he made in his speech in Jackson Square to help the city recover remained good today.
Afterward, music filled the bedraggled auditorium. But rather than the marches of John Philip Sousa, the usual accompaniment as Bush shakes hands with the audience, it was a tune more befitting to the location: a recording of Fats Domino singing “Walking to New Orleans.”