On anniversary eve, Bush vows 'a new Mississippi'

The Baltimore Sun

BILOXI, Miss. -- On the eve of the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush returned to the once-devastated blocks he walked after the storm, cheered the progress made in rebuilding the Gulf Coast and told those whose suffering continues: "The federal government stands with you still." As he gazed at the white sand beaches, he saw in them a metaphor for what he promised would be "a new Mississippi."

A year ago, Bush said, "the beaches were cluttered with debris and garbage; the beautiful beaches had been destroyed. And now they speak to the hope of this part of the world."

The president and his wife, Laura, spent about five hours here, driving and walking past the scars left by the storm - a house under repair at one corner, vacant lots where homes had once stood. But he focused on the progress over the past year in rebuilding Biloxi and neighboring Gulfport, along with the government's commitment to continue supporting the reconstruction, likely to take years.

Today, he is scheduled to make a similar tour in New Orleans, where he is also to attend a church service held at the moment, one year earlier, when the levees were breached, inundating 80 percent of the city.

The difficulty of the challenge of marking Katrina's one-year anniversary was not lost on the White House. It was the administration's response, criticized as too slow and too insensitive to the devastation in some of New Orleans' poorest areas, that brought the president - already sinking in public opinion polls - new political woes.

Now, his two-day return to the region gives Bush an opportunity to seek to renew his credentials as a compassionate and competent leader - both of which were battered after the storm. At the same time, his visit refocuses attention on those problems.

After initially just flying over the devastation, examining it from a window of Air Force One on a vacation-ending flight from his Texas ranch to Washington, the president made an average of one visit a month over the past year, including five last September.

Since then, Bush and Congress have moved relatively quickly to approve emergency spending to rebuild the region. Now the complaints are focused on delays in getting the money here. Congress and the administration allocated $110 billion in aid, but only $44 billion has been spent.

It was against that backdrop that Bush appeared yesterday, while the threats to Florida posed by Tropical Storm Ernesto raised anew the question of whether the administration had learned from its mistakes. That storm is expected to return to hurricane status as it leaves Cuba and heads over open water toward southern Florida.

The president said he understood the trauma the people had experienced. But, in remarks that gave almost no quarter to the evidence of devastation throughout the region, he stood under an unyielding sun here and said, "I feel a quiet sense of determination that's going to shape the future of Mississippi.

"Optimism is the only option," he added. "We want to help, we want to help that optimism succeed."

His visit followed by several days one by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other top Democrats, who were sharply critical of the administration's follow-through on an aid program that had initially appeared to reflect a high degree of bipartisan cooperation. Democratic members of Congress, among them House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, are also expected on the Gulf Coast this week.

Mississippi and its Republican governor, Haley Barbour, have generally been more supportive of Bush's efforts than Louisiana, where Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco is in the statehouse. By stopping here first, Bush was able to present the region's recovery in a more favorable light than the more difficult rebuilding in New Orleans might allow.

But even here, there have been frustrations: The federal government is making $150,000 grants available for home repair, and about 17,000 Mississippi households have applied for them. But Scott Hamilton, a spokesman for the Mississippi Development Authority, said the state has sent out only about two dozen checks so far.

Bush spoke at Fowler and Claiborne streets, just blocks north of the beach, a row of three rebuilt houses, and a child's wooden playhouse raised on stilts behind him, illustrating for television cameras the successful rebuilding effort. But just to his left, and out of the range of cameras recording his speech sat a structure, once a home but now showing all the scars of last year's onslaught: broken windows, uprooted railings, and all coated with a layer of grime.

Along U.S. 90, the main highway that parallels the Gulfport and Biloxi beaches, signs of the storm - and the delay in making repairs - were everywhere. A Smoothie King and the adjacent UPS store: gone. Antebellum homes: gone. The roof of the First Presbyterian Church still under the once-ubiquitous blue plastic tarps, and the interior still gutted. On some lots, only foundations remain, their owners' memories and city records the only evidence of what once stood there.

But elsewhere, there were signs of progress: At the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino, a digital sign ticked down the hours yesterday until it would reopen, one year to the day after the storm struck.

Numerous critical reports from Congress and interest groups challenged the president's assessments. Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee issued one such report yesterday. "Americans know that the Bush administration has fallen well short of expectations nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina hit, and this report shows that they have not rebuilt enough homes, stimulated the economy, buried some of the dead, cut back on wasteful spending, or even cleaned up the mess," said Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, a senior Democrat on the committee.

The Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank populated largely by Democrats, said that even more staggering than the destruction of the storm "has been the slow pace of recovery." "It is clear that the nation is still waiting for the help Bush promised," the group said.

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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