NEW ORLEANS—President Bush returned Tuesday to the city hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina one year ago to the day, accepted full blame for the federal government's failures in its early recovery efforts and implored its citizens to come home.
"I know you love New Orleans, and New Orleans needs you," Bush said in a speech at a damaged high school that's scheduled to reopen next week. "Seeing these old saints to come marching back is what you need. New Orleans is calling her children home."
The president made his impassioned plea to a New Orleans that's still very much a work in progress a year after levees gave way and flooded 80 percent of the historic Gulf Coast city, much of which lies below sea level.
Only 235,000 people—or 45 percent—of the city's 485,000 pre-Katrina residents have returned, according to estate estimates and utilities records. The New Orleans phone book has become a symbol of the shrunken city: It went from separate Yellow Pages and white pages last year to a single, thinner business and residential listings book this year.
While Bush administration officials hailed the progress New Orleans has made, public services, housing and economic conditions are rebounding slowly.
Natural-gas service is operating in 41 percent of the homes and businesses that had it before Katrina, according to a review compiled by the Brookings Institution, a Washington research center.
Fewer than half of the routes for New Orleans' buses and famed streetcars are up and running, and only 17 percent of the buses are in use, the study said.
The Army Corps declared New Orleans largely drained after about three weeks, but some parts of the city were under water for up to 57 days. Many of those neighborhoods are still virtually vacant. In some sections, bulldozers are tearing down houses that are too far gone. In others, homeowners plan to rebuild but for now live in government relief trailers in their front yards or have set up homes elsewhere.
"A lot of work has been accomplished, and I congratulate the people here," Bush said. "But there's more work to be done."
Though Bush spent most of his two days on the Gulf Coast touting the positive aspects of the recovery effort, he took the blame for his administration's inadequate response to the hurricane, which killed 1,695 people in the Gulf Coast, 1,464 of them in Louisiana.
"I take full responsibility for the federal government's response, and a year ago I made a pledge that we will learn the lessons of Katrina and that we will come back to New Orleans to tell you the words that I spoke on Jackson Square are true today as they were then," he said.
After his speech, the president toured the Ninth Ward, which was one of the most flooded sections after the storm.
He stopped in at the Musicians' Village, now under construction. The brainchild of New Orleans jazzmen Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr., it's designed to help restore the neighborhood's cultural vitality by providing rebuilt homes for musicians and others.
In the Lower Ninth Ward, the president and first lady Laura Bush visited legendary musician Fats Domino's hurricane-damaged home and gave him a new National Medal of the Arts. His original medal, which President Clinton gave him, got lost in the storm.
Last September, in a nationally televised speech at the square, outside one of the city's landmarks, Bush vowed that the federal government would do whatever it took and stay for however long it took to make the region even better than it was before.
In a metaphoric moment before Tuesday's speech, the president attended a breakfast meeting with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin at Betsy's Pancake House, which had 61 inches of water gush in when the levees broke.
Bush encountered waitress Joyce Labruzzo, who was trying to negotiate the narrow spaces between tables in a restaurant packed with customers eager to mingle with the president.
"Mr. President, you're not going to turn your back on me?" she asked.
"No, ma'am," Bush said with a laugh and a pause. "Not again."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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