WASHINGTON—President Bush stood in the illuminated darkness of Jackson Square in New Orleans last year and made a solemn vow to Americans who were horrified by the devastation from Hurricane Katrina and the federal government's fumbling response to it.
"Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives," Bush said during a Sept. 15, 2005, nationally televised speech. "When communities are rebuilt, they must be even better and stronger than before the storm."
The president returns to the Gulf Coast on Monday to mark the first anniversary of the Category 3 storm, which killed 1,695 people, displaced 770,000 others and caused at least $96 billion in damage to homes, businesses and government property there.
In Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., and in New Orleans, Bush will tout the progress his administration has made in a year toward getting the region back on its feet, and he'll emphasize that the road to total recovery is a marathon—not a sprint—that will take years to complete.
But a look back at the Jackson Square speech shows that Bush stumbled from the starting blocks in trying to make good on the ambitious recovery goals he set, according to academics, authors, hurricane experts, civil rights leaders and others monitoring post-Katrina rebuilding efforts.
From his commitment to make New Orleans' damaged levee system "stronger than it has ever been" to his vow to address the "deep, persistent poverty" with "roots in a history of racial discrimination" that Katrina exposed, Bush has come up short, they say.
"It sounded like the Bush administration was going to engage in a grand historical moment, a Marshall Plan for the deep South," said Douglas Brinkley, a Tulane University history professor and author of "The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast."
"Instead, they're doing just enough to be credible," Brinkley said. "It hasn't been written off by the administration—federal money has come in. It's just been de-prioritized behind the war on terror and the trillion-dollar debt."
White House officials disagree. They say that Bush successfully marshaled the financial and physical resources of the federal government after the administration admittedly failed to provide enough assistance in the early days after the storm.
"President Bush has directed the federal government to be fully engaged in the Gulf Coast region, while empowering state and local officials to have the primary role in planning for their own future," said Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman.
But many post-Katrina analysts say that Bush's stewardship of rebuilding efforts has been uneven at best. They credit his administration for helping to secure $110 billion in federal funds for recovery efforts, for fixing New Orleans' damaged levees and for getting nearly 100 million cubic tons of hurricane- and flood-related debris removed from the region.
But they note that even some of the positives are problematic. Of $110 billion appropriated for Gulf Coast recovery, only $77 billion has been released, and only $44 billion has been spent. Funds from a $17 billion program to rebuild an estimated 204,000 homes in Louisiana and Mississippi has yet to produce one rebuilt property, according to a new report by Oxfam America, an international humanitarian organization.
Don Powell, the federal coordinator for the Office of Gulf Coast Rebuilding, blames states for being slow to submit their plans for the money to the federal government. He said he struggles with a balancing act between "getting the money out fast and getting the money out responsibly fast."
Bush, following a meeting Wednesday at the White House with Rockey Vaccarella, a New Orleans resident who lost his home to the storm, acknowledged that "there's still bureaucratic hurdles" hampering recovery efforts and that the federal government must do more to "eradicate those hurdles."
Most of the damage to Vaccarella's hometown didn't result from Katrina's powerful winds, but from flooding that occurred when the levees designed to protect the below-sea-level city gave way.
The Army Corps of Engineers has repaired and restored more than 220 miles of floodwalls and levees since September 2005, and floodgates have been added to guard against storm surge, White House officials said.
That will help the levees survive a Category 2 hurricane, but Katrina was a Category 3, and the worst storms are Category 5. The administration has secured nearly $6 billion for the corps to further strengthen the system by 2010, to make the odds of the city flooding again only once in 100 years.
The Army Corps says it doesn't measure the levees' strength or survivability in terms of hurricane categories, but Ivor L. van Heerden, deputy director of Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center, said the enhancements would enable the levees to withstand up to a Category 4 hurricane.
"The federal government is committed to building the best levee system in the world," Powell said last December. The Netherlands' dike system is considered the world's finest; it's built to ensure a projected flood rate of only once in 10,000 years.
The Bush administration's short-term repairs and even the enhancement plan are a long way from that, according to van Heerden.
It would cost $30 billion to build a system in New Orleans with once-in-500 years flood protection, van Heerden said.
"Right now, New Orleans has a once-in-20 years (flood) protection," said van Heerden. "While the corps repairs have been robust, nothing has changed in terms of the level of protection. If there is a slow-moving Category 3 storm, it will fill up everything. Why won't this White House step up to the plate?"
Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander and chief engineer of the Army of Engineers, will present to Congress by December 2007 a proposal on what it would take to provide Category 5 hurricane protection to the Louisiana coast. That's two hurricane seasons from now.
Beyond fixing New Orleans' levees, Bush said he would work to repair the racism and inequality in America that were exposed in Katrina's aftermath.
For days, TV images flashed worldwide showed poor, mostly African-American victims clinging to rooftops and crowding into the stench-filled Superdome and Convention Center waiting for federal help that was slow to come.
The scenes that made the wealthy United States look like a third-world nation weren't lost on Bush. In his Jackson Square talk, he acknowledged "deep, persistent poverty in this region" with "roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America."
"We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action," Bush said.
Nearly a year later, Roland V. Anglin is still waiting for action.
"When the president came to the Gulf Coast and made those remarks, a lot of us thought that this was an opportunity to revisit the question of race and equity," said Anglin, director of the Institute on Regional and Community Transformation at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "Unfortunately, that conversation has not really progressed to the point a lot of us thought, or hoped, that it would."
Administration officials insist that Bush has been tackling race and inequality issues, noting that he spoke at the NAACP convention this year for the first time in his presidency.
He's shown leadership on the issues through general programs such as his No Child Left Behind, welfare reform and housing plans, administration officials say.
"By sponsoring long-term programs and initiatives that provide minorities with better access to better housing, jobs and education, he is continuing to help more people achieve the American dream," Lawrimore said.
Anglin disagrees. The administration's inattention to race and inequality are hindering recovery efforts, according to a post-Katrina NAACP report that Anglin helped write.
The report contends that state and federal governments have focused too heavily on compensating homeowners, while paying little attention to the needs of those who lived in rental housing, low-to-moderate-income housing and public housing, where many of the state's poor and African-Americans lived before the storm.
The scarcity of apartments and rising rents are becoming problems in Mississippi towns such as Biloxi, where 70 percent of household renters were African-American, according to 2000 statistics compiled by the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank, for the NAACP report.
The federal government has allocated Mississippi $5.1 billion in Community Development Block Grants to help homeowners and apartment owners. Another $1 billion has been set aside recently to rebuild affordable housing, including public housing along the Gulf Coast.
Powell last week said that "there is adequate money" in the Mississippi and Louisiana CDBG plans to help low- and moderate-income housing dwellers and those who rent.
"Well, it hasn't gotten there, just like the homeowners' money hasn't gotten there yet," Powell said. "But there is a provision. ... It will get there."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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