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Bush Pledges Support in Visit to Gulf Coast

Times Staff Writer

Making his 10th visit to this storm-battered region in the last six months, President Bush promised Wednesday to rebuild and strengthen the breached levees that flooded New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and chastised Congress for cutting $1.5 billion from Louisiana’s recovery funds.

As pile drivers clanged in the background, Bush pledged that the levees would be “equal or better to what they were before Katrina.” “We fully understand that if the people don’t have confidence in the levee system, they’re not going to want to come back,” he said. “People aren’t going to want to spend money or invest.”

Bush urged Congress to make good on the White House’s request in December for $3.1 billion to fund New Orleans levee projects. Instead, Congress diverted about half the money to other projects of the Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the levee reconstruction.

“Congress heard our message but shortchanged it by $1.5 billion,” the president said. “Congress needs to restore the $1.5 billion to make this a real commitment, to inspire the good folks down here that they’ll have a levee system that will encourage development and reconstruction.”

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He said the restoration of the levees would be completed by June 1, when hurricane season begins, and an upgrade would be done by September 2007.

With many residents frustrated by the slow pace of recovery, and much of the Gulf Coast still devastated, Bush’s trip was designed in part to show that the federal government had not forgotten the plight of those whose lives were upended by the hurricane.

He visited the small town of Gautier, Miss., stopping at an elementary school and touring a flattened working-class neighborhood. Bush also made his first visit to New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, where whole neighborhoods were washed away and thousands of people spent days clinging to rooftops, desperate for rescue.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done, no doubt about it,” he said.

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Inspecting the levee repairs, a shirt-sleeved Bush -- joined by New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco -- praised the work of construction workers and residents in reclaiming their lives.

“I appreciate the determination by the folks down here to rebuild,” he said. “I fully understand and I hope your country understands the pain and agony that the people ... went through.”

As a bulldozer shoved a mattress, toys, a cooking pot, jeans and a single brown shoe down a nearby street, Bush said, “You’ve got a pile of stuff here.” At one point Nagin called Bush over to an abandoned home, saying: “You ought to see this.” The two disappeared inside.

The trip is the president’s first to the region since the publication last month of two scathing reports -- one by a House committee, the other by the White House -- criticizing the failure of government at every level in the response to Katrina.

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It also follows the release by the Associated Press this month of a video of an Aug. 28 conference call in which Bush was warned by officials about the possibility of massive flooding, the integrity of the levees and potential loss of life. On Sept. 1, the president had told ABC News that no one had anticipated a breach. Some New Orleans residents thought Bush was not telling the truth.

“Many of us felt we were being lied to,” said Barbara Longworth, a real estate agent who described herself as a political independent.

A recent poll of residents in New Orleans found the approval rating for the president’s handling of Katrina at 23% -- one point above the much-derided Federal Emergency Management Agency and 10 points below Blanco, who also has been criticized for her actions. The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, published last week, found that Nagin had an approval rating of 54% among those still living in New Orleans.

“The mood is really mixed,” said John Kiefer, at the University of New Orleans’ College of Urban and Public Affairs. “There’s an apprehension tempered by uncertainty.”

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White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush was eager to see the damage for himself. “I think every time he visits the region, he’s reminded of the hardship and pain that many citizens of the region continue to face,” McClellan said en route from the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, where Bush had flown Tuesday to vote in the state’s primary election.

The Gulf Coast visit seemed to reignite criticism of the administration’s handling of Katrina, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. The storm killed more than 1,300 people in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, left hundreds of thousands homeless and caused tens of billions of dollars in property damage.

A UC Berkeley team of civil and environmental engineering experts studying the levee failures said this week that the Corps of Engineers was using a flawed method to restore the levees -- soft sand that would not withstand the next hurricane. The Natural Resources Defense Council charged that the administration was not ridding New Orleans of dangerous toxins.

And the office of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) accused Bush of returning to the region “in an attempt to shore up his damaged image and sinking approval ratings.”

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White House officials, resigned to questions about what went wrong in the federal response to Katrina, were eager to move the conversation ahead.

“There’s enough blame to go around, and the president has taken his share,” said spokesman Trent Duffy. “But we can’t keep looking back and sniping at each other. It’s unraveling all the goodwill we have built up with state and local officials.”

Some local Democrats agreed.

“We don’t want to spend time crying; we’re rebuilding,” said Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, who represents the French Quarter on the New Orleans City Council. “Every time he comes down here, we get a little more.”

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Pointing out that New Orleans is a major part of the national economy with “the largest most commercialized port, providing strategic oil reserves for the entire Northeast,” Clarkson said that, with federal help, the city would be rebuilt.

“We have an opportunity to restore our city, to eliminate the crime and poverty, to make a better educational system,” she said.

Noting that an eclectic band of New Orleans fighters defeated the British during the War of 1812, Clarkson said, “You don’t kill that spirit. We’re not going to lose our music or our food or our 300-year-old buildings. We’ll restore every neighborhood that’s feasible to restore.”


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