NEW ORLEANS — John McCain made a bold promise Thursday to this still-staggering city, where the legacy of Hurricane Katrina is evident in blocks of abandoned homes and trash-strewn streets.
"Never again," McCain said during a press conference in the city's Lower Ninth Ward. "Never again will a disaster of this nature be handled in the terrible and disgraceful way that it was handled."
McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, capped a week of visits to America's "forgotten places" with a 20-minute walking tour of the Lower Ninth.
While the touristy French Quarter has regained its seedy charm, and the city's wealthier precincts are fine, many of the poorer residential sections of New Orleans near the Mississippi River remain a nearly lifeless wasteland after the devastating hurricane of September 2005. Telephone poles throughout the Lower Ninth are pasted with signs advertising mold removal, tear-down services and "easy financing!!!" for residents who've received their "home money but still can't afford to rebuild."
"It's slow," said Calvin Young, 83, a retiree who lives in the neighborhood. "This is Louisiana. We got three ways of doing things: the right way, the wrong way and the Louisiana way."
On his tour, McCain asked Linda Jackson, the president of a neighborhood rebuilding association, what's the area's greatest need.
"Housing," Jackson replied. "Permanent, affordable housing. We've helped a lot of people, but we've got a long way to go."
"I want every one of those homes restored and people living in them," McCain said later.
McCain was an early voice among congressional Republicans to criticize the Bush administration response to Katrina. He reiterated that criticism on Thursday, especially condemning the lack of qualified people at Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In what seemed an implicit criticism of President Bush's now-infamous low fly-by of the disaster area after Katrina, McCain said: "I'd have ordered the plane landed at the nearest Air Force base and I'd have been over here."
Nevertheless, Democrats denounced McCain Thursday as a hypocrite. They pointed out that McCain voted against creating a commission to investigate the federal response to the disaster. They also accused him of wanting to privatize FEMA because of his suggestion that the federal government partner with the private sector to handle some aspects of emergency response, such as delivering supplies.
The Democratic National Committee lambasted McCain's "record of outrageous votes" against several measures for Katrina victims, such as a $28 billion relief package and extended Medicaid benefits.
"All partisan votes," McCain said. "They were full of pork-barrel projects."
Among actions McCain proposed Thursday were:
- Restoring wetlands and saving barrier islands to protect New Orleans.
- Quicker action on climate change to lessen the frequency of high-impact natural disasters.
- Ensuring that New Orleans meets a 2011 deadline for constructing levees that are able to handle a 100-year flood.
"To protect the lives of the American people, we can always find the money," McCain said.
Such proposals were little solace to Ricky Hawkins, 52, who's been waiting for action for more than two years.
"Everything on the other side of the canal is opened up," Hawkins said, sipping from a can in a paper bag a few feet from where McCain began his tour. "In my neighborhood, there's 42 people. I don't feel that's right."