NEW ORLEANS—Speaking from the center of a deserted and devastated city, President Bush on Thursday outlined one of the biggest recovery efforts in history for Hurricane Katrina and promised to overhaul the government's disaster-response plan.
"This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina," he said in a nationally televised speech from Jackson Square, in the symbolic heart of New Orleans' French Quarter. He assured Katrina's victims that they would get the help they needed to resume normal lives.
"The work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen," he said. "I know that when you sit on the steps of a porch where a home once stood or sleep on a cot in a crowded shelter, it is hard to imagine a bright future. But that future will come."
Bush made his fourth trip to the stricken Gulf Coast on a day of hope for New Orleans. Hours before Bush's speech, Mayor Ray Nagin announced that nearly 200,000 residents and business owners would be allowed to return starting this weekend.
"It's a good day in New Orleans," Nagin said. "We're bringing New Orleans back, and this is our first step."
The mayor's optimistic mood contrasted with the finger-pointing and ill will that followed the government's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the Gulf Coast. Bush's speech was the latest in a series of White House efforts to address concerns about the government's response and questions about the president's leadership.
Bush, whose job-approval ratings have fallen to around 40 percent in a series of recent polls—the lowest of his presidency—went further than he ever had in acknowledging the missteps and accepting responsibility.
"It was not a normal hurricane, and the normal disaster-relief system was not equal to it," he said. "The system, at every level of government, was not well coordinated and was overwhelmed in the first few days. It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces.
"Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency," he added. "When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I as president am responsible for the problem, and for the solution."
The president also addressed concerns raised by televised images of suffering crowds of city residents, many of whom were low-income African-Americans. Polls indicate that most blacks believe that the slow government response was related to the race of the victims. Most whites reject that explanation.
Bush said Americans watching the disaster-relief efforts on television saw "some deep persistent poverty" that "has roots in a history of racial discrimination."
"We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action," he said. "When the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses, along those streets."
Bush didn't put a price on the recovery effort, but most estimates put the tab between $200 billion and $300 billion, roughly equal to the combined cost to date of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The government will borrow the money, driving up the national debt. This year's deficit is already $331 billion.
The president outlined a series of steps to aid flood victims: vouchers to let displaced students attend private or parochial schools at public expense; federal reimbursements to help states deal with higher Medicaid costs for evacuees; up to $5,000 for some unemployed hurricane victims so that they can pay for training, child care or other services that might help them find work; the creation of a Gulf Opportunity Zone that would give tax breaks and loans in return for business investment; and new "worker recovery accounts" to expand unemployment benefits.
The school voucher plan is likely to be particularly controversial because Congress has blocked similar plans in the past. Democrats accused Bush of trying to use the disaster to advance an ideological agenda.
"The Gulf Coast region does not deserve to be treated as a laboratory for political opportunism or ideological experimentation," Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said in a joint statement.
In New Orleans, the first significant steps toward normalcy will come on Saturday, when business owners will be allowed to return to some sections of the city. Areas set to open in stages include the central business district, the French Quarter, the section known as Uptown, and Algiers, located across the Mississippi River. Businesses on Bourbon Street will be ready to reopen their doors to greet customers on Sept. 26.
Residents will start returning on Monday, on a schedule devised by zip codes.
To return to the city, residents and business owners will be asked to verify proof of residence or business ownership with identification. About 182,000 people live in the areas to be reopened over the next two weeks, out of a city of nearly 500,000.
Despite the cleanup and plans for rebirth, nearly half of New Orleans remains flooded and uninhabitable. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that it will take until Oct. 8 to pump all the water out of the city.
The death toll also continues to rise along the Gulf Coast. At least 794 bodies have been found so far, including 558 in Louisiana. On Thursday, government forecasters confirmed what had seemed clear for weeks: Katrina was the most destructive hurricane ever to strike the United States.
Hurricane Andrew, the previous worst storm, cost about $21 billion in today's dollars when it hit South Florida in 1992.
Bush pledged to work closely with city and state officials along the Gulf Coast during the reconstruction. He said federal funds would cover "the great majority of costs" of repairing roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and other public facilities. He said all expenditures would be closely monitored to guard against fraud and waste.
White House aides selected a setting for Bush's remarks that provided a reassuring view of one of the city's most recognizable landmarks. The square, dominated by the cream-colored spires of St. Louis Cathedral and a statue of Andrew Jackson on horseback, was spruced up Monday by a fire-fighting crew from Arizona.
The crew, part of a California-based emergency-response team, was in New Orleans to help set up accommodations, showers and meal tents for thousands of federal law enforcement workers helping with the cleanup. Sam Wilbanks, a U.S. Forest Service employee on the emergency-response team, said crew members weren't aware of Bush's visit when they volunteered to clean the square.
The White House kept the site of Bush's speech secret until Wednesday night, and troops from the 82nd Airborne patrolled the area. The precautions guaranteed that Bush wouldn't face the kind of heckling that Vice President Dick Cheney endured during his recent visit to the Gulf Coast, when he was loudly cursed.
(Hutcheson, of Knight Ridder's Washington bureau, reported from Washington. Bolstad of The Miami Herald reported from New Orleans. Gary Estwick, of the Akron Beacon-Journal, contributed from New Orleans.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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