NEW ORLEANS — President Bush marked the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's devastating cut through the Gulf Coast region on Wednesday, proclaiming that "better days are ahead" for New Orleans and promising that his administration is still engaged in recovery efforts.
Bush and his wife, Laura, observed a moment of silence at 9:38 a.m. — the moment the levees broke here — at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology, the first school to reopen in the city's heavily damaged Lower Ninth Ward.
Afterward, the president described New Orleans as rebounding after the 2005 Category 3 hurricane that killed 1,695 people, displaced 770,000 and caused at least $96 billion in damage to homes, businesses and government property in the Gulf Coast.
"My attitude is this: New Orleans, better days are ahead," Bush told a group of education officials, students and community leaders. "It's sometimes hard for people to see progress when you live in a community all the time. And it's easy to think about what it was like when we first came here after the hurricane, and what it's like today. And this town is coming back. This town is better today than it was yesterday, and it's going to be better tomorrow than it was today."
Loyce Wright, the executive director of the Louisiana Commission on Human Rights, said Bush spoke the truth that New Orleans was better than it was yesterday but that was no way to measure progress when yesterday was a living hell.
"We were down on our knees crippled, and the federal government has been slow to our needs," she said. "We live with this every day. We drive through the city and see abandoned homes; we get the poor health care. There's not a grocery store in my community, not a one. We still have people living in subhuman conditions in trailers as homes."
Wright recently returned to her rebuilt New Orleans East home after two years of living in Georgia, California, Baton Rouge and Memphis, Tenn. Her house is fine, but her neighborhood now is inhabited by two alligators in a lake and infested with nutria rats, large orange-toothed rodents that usually live in marshlands. She said neither had been there before Katrina.
"Katrina isn't going to run me out," but the reptiles might, she said. "We deserve better. I pray I see the better."
The trip to New Orleans was Bush's 15th since the hurricane. The White House suffered withering criticism of its initially slow response to the storm's aftermath, which was symbolized by former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown claiming that he didn't know that tens of thousands of New Orleans residents had taken shelter in the city's convention center. Thousands more filled the Louisiana Superdome.
Bush accepted responsibility for his administration's handling of Katrina during last year's anniversary ceremonies. On Wednesday, he said the federal government hadn't abandoned the region and noted that it's made available or disbursed about $96 billion of the $114 billion promised for rebuilding New Orleans and other Gulf Coast areas.
Despite Bush's optimistic assessment, evidence abounded that the recovery has a long way to go in New Orleans. Boarded-up homes and shotgun-shack roofs with blue tarps surrounded the school where the president spoke. FEMA trailers still sit in many front yards, serving as "temporary" housing for displaced residents.
At the Martin Luther King, Jr. school library, copies of the "Louisiana Citizen Awareness and Disaster Evacuation Guide" rest atop a bookshelf next to copies of "Stellaluna," "Lola at the Library" and other children's books.
"The kids still get frightened when it starts to rain," said Amelie Prescott, 65, a Lower Ninth Ward resident and an art teacher at the school. "It's still hard on a lot of kids who still don't know where they're going to be."
Later, at a community center in Bay St. Louis, Miss., Bush said he and Laura Bush had visited the region "to remind people that we haven't forgotten, and won't."
Critics charge that the administration's response to Katrina remains insufficient. A report by the RFK Center for Human Rights and the Institute for Southern Studies said two-thirds of the money that the administration had provided to Louisiana and Mississippi was earmarked for emergency response and couldn't be used to rebuild communities.
A Year Two analysis by the Brookings Institution's Katrina Index indicates that New Orleans is showing signs of recovery but some dispiriting trends remain. The city's population is slowly rebounding, reaching 66 percent of pre-Katrina levels, up from 50 percent last year.
The economy — fueled in part by resurgent tourism — is strong but has plateaued. Housing repairs and construction continue, but repairs to essential infrastructure largely have been stalled and public services remain limited.