Former President George W. Bush returned Friday to New Orleans, where he was vilified for his administration's lackluster response to Hurricane Katrina, to praise the city's comeback 10 years after the catastrophic storm.
"Isn't it amazing? The storm nearly destroyed New Orleans and yet, now, New Orleans is the beacon for school reform," Bush said at the city's oldest public school, which was badly flooded and almost abandoned before it reopened a year later as Warren Easton Charter High School.
The school's success is a rare bright spot from what historians consider a low-point for Bush's presidency.
The damage was far more extensive than his administration was prepared for, and he didn't help his image by initially flying over the flooded city in Air Force One without touching down in New Orleans to show his support. The overall death toll soared to more than 1,830, as bodies were left to decompose on the streets and thousands of victims were stranded on rooftops.
When Bush made it to the hurricane zone, he compounded his problems with his "Heckuva job, Brownie" praise for his Federal Emergency Management Agency director, Michael Brown.
Bush and his team were so deeply resented and mocked he and his appointees were displayed in effigy at Carnival parades for years afterward.
The monster storm set off a "confluence of blunders" that Bush's approval ratings never recovered from, said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University and author of "The Great Deluge," a detailed account of the first days after Katrina.
Bush has deep ties to the Gulf Coast and New Orleans — both as a Texan and as president, and his administration eventually spent $140 billion to help the region recover. But he largely took a hands-off approach. He frequently said rebuilding was best left to locals, but he did push to reform schools and replace housing projects with public-private developments.
At Warren Easton, at least, Bush could point to a success story. His wife Laura's foundation helped rebuild the school, and alums appreciated their personal involvement.
"We have fond memories of his last visit," said Arthur Hardy, 1965 Warren Easton graduate who became a celebrity in New Orleans for his expertise in all things Mardi Gras.
Most city schools had been foundering before the storm. The old public school system was riddled with pervasive corruption, broken buildings and failing grades. Only 56 percent of the students graduated high school on time.
Bush supported the switch to charter schools, and praised Warren Easton during a 2006 visit as an example of the city's comeback spirit, even as nearly all its students remained homeless that year, living in FEMA trailers or sleeping on couches.
By then, Katrina was already serving as a catalyst for a nearly system-wide takeover. The state of Louisiana eventually turned all 57 schools under its control into independently run charters, publicly funded and accountable to education officials for results, but with a great deal of autonomy in daily operations.
The city's four-year graduation rate is up to 73 percent, but progress is uneven, and many lament the loss of neighborhood schools. Parents also question the qualifications of some teachers, saying they lack experience and certification.
Bush was only positive Friday, saying "today we celebrate the resurgence of New Orleans schools."
Bush said parents now have choices about where to send their kids, and principals and teachers have more authority to cut through bureaucracy and focus on education. He said the nation's school systems are looking at New Orleans as a model, and singled out Warren Easton's teachers and principal, Alexina Medley, for praise.
"There's no doubt that Lexie Medley is a strong leader," Bush said. "As you heard, this school has graduated 100 percent of its seniors for the past five years."
The Bushes were greeted Friday by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and former Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco, who fought hard to get federal aid during Katrina.
Later Friday, they visited Gulfport, Mississippi, to attend an event thanking first-responders with Gov. Phil Bryant and former Gov. Haley Barbour, a staunch Bush ally who led Mississippi when Katrina hit.