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One family in New Orleans views Bush speech with skepticism

NEW ORLEANS—When the president addressed the nation Thursday night from Jackson Park—a conspicuously clean square in a dark, almost utterly vacant city—the Thomas brothers were watching at home.

This was strange and amazing but explainable because they live on a particular block of Willow Street, possibly the only one in the entire city with electricity.

Lawrence Thomas Sr. was watching, too, but he does not take kindly to strange reporters in the night. "Hmmph," was all he said when "Survivor" ended—Jim was voted off—and President Bush marched out from behind Andrew Jackson's statue.

Lawrence Jr., 53, and James, 49, were more talkative because they've been living alone in an empty neighborhood with their dad for two weeks. There's been no demand for men in their trade, which is hanging sheetrock in new homes, so they've had nothing to do but clean their house. When they finished that, they started mowing absent neighbors' lawns.

They have lived in New Orleans their whole lives, first in the Magnolia Projects across town, then when the projects turned bad, over on Willow. They saw their city grow sick long before Hurricane Katrina came. Now they watch contractors from out of state taking money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for reconstruction jobs in their hometown.

"Bush is promising all that money," said Lawrence Jr. "He's got to, to save face. But that money, that's not going to last. What we need is jobs. When I got out of high school, you could apprentice—carpentry, brick masonry. I don't know what happened to all that. Now there's Popeye's."

James nodded. He's the more skeptical of the two. "What is this, the fourth time he's been here? And now he's in Jackson Square? Boy, it looks like a hurricane never even came through there. I saw them cleaning that up for days. And you know what? There's nobody living down there in the business district. He's talking in an empty neighborhood."

He scoffed when Bush proposed the Gulf Opportunity Zone and pledged to "do what it takes ... and stay as long as it takes."

"People will believe anything they want to hear," James Thomas said. "Something's going to happen, just not for everybody."

But Lawrence Jr. leaned in when Bush talked about returning postal service and FEMA assistance for hurricane victims. His Social Security check was due on the third of the month, and the rheumatoid arthritis that keeps him out of work sometimes is acting up again.

A help number appeared on the screen. "That's me, right? Can I borrow your pen?"

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(Spangler reports for The Miami Herald.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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