Bush vows historic rebuilding effort

By Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker

The Washington Post

NEW ORLEANS – President Bush, summoning the American spirit and “a faith in God no storm can take away,” vowed from the heart of the Hurricane Katrina disaster zone Thursday night to rebuild this devastated city and the rest of the Gulf Coast with “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.”

In a prime-time address televised from the storm-battered French Quarter, the president appeared without coat and tie to promise help for hundreds of thousands of victims to rebuild their lives with unprecedented federal assistance to secure homes, jobs, health care and schooling.

“You need to know,” he said, directly addressing the dislocated and desperate, “that our whole nation cares about you, and in the journey ahead you are not alone. … And tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: 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 accepts criticism

Eighteen days after Katrina smashed through the levees here, flooding the city, killing hundreds and displacing more than 1 million, Bush effectively accepted the criticism of the government's stutter-start response to the storm and vowed to investigate and overhaul its emergency plans, calling in particular for “a broader role for the armed forces” in future disasters. But he embraced a Republican plan for a GOP-majority congressional inquiry rather than the independent commission sought by Democrats.

The president called for “bold action” to address the long-standing poverty in the region that was only worsened by the crisis. He made it clear that local officials will dictate how the city is reconstructed, and that a chief aim will be to lure those who fled New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities to return rather than relocate permanently to the places where they sought refuge.

Although Bush cited no price tag, he committed the nation to a plan that officials and lawmakers believe could top $200 billion, and is certain to reorient government and the remainder of the Bush presidency. It will create much larger deficits in the short term, siphon off money that would have been spent on other programs, and dramatically shift the focus of the White House, Congress and many state governments for the indefinite future.

Long-term goals

While he embraced a program the scale of which few Democratic presidents have ever advanced, Bush also signaled plans to use the reconstruction to enact long-term political goals. Adopting a policy option typically used in much smaller scale, he proposed creation of a Gulf “opportunity zone” that would grant new and existing businesses a variety of tax breaks, loans and loan guarantees through 2007. And in documents released before the speech, Bush called for displaced families that send their children to private schools, including religious ones, to be eligible for federal money.

In recognition of the economic disparities laid bare by the hurricane and its aftermath, Bush spoke of using this moment to confront endemic destitution born out of prejudice. “As all of us saw on television,” he said, “there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. That poverty has 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.”

The president called on Congress to quickly pass a plan that would provide property on the federal domain free of charge though a lottery. In exchange, a recipient would be obligated to build a home with additional assistance from government. “Homeownership is one of the great strengths of any community, and it must be a central part of our vision for the renewal,” he said. He also proposed creation of “worker recovery accounts” of up to $5,000 for evacuees to use for job training, education and child care.

The scene from New Orleans

Bush spoke from Jackson Square, where a towering statute of Andrew Jackson is one of the few local icons left unscathed in the Big Easy. The buildings surrounding the square are boarded up and lifeless; a metal telephone pole across the street is split like a small stick, a testament to Katrina's fury. The historic square commemorates the French handover of Louisiana in 1803; now, 202 years later, it marks the spot where Bush promised to rebuild the heart of Louisiana.

“There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again,” Bush said. The White House said it paid for the electricity and lights used for the speech, limiting the local inconvenience.

The speech came at perhaps the most difficult political moment of Bush's presidency, with Americans losing faith in his ability to manage crisis and lead the nation out of troubled times, according to polls. His approval ratings have dropped to new lows in the past few days as gasoline prices have soared and chaos in Iraq persists. The speech capped a week-long effort to restore Bush's standing, starting with the ousting of the Federal Emergency Management Agency director, who oversaw the initial response, and a rare public embrace of responsibility for shortcomings.

Democrats respond

Congressional Democrats did not wait for the speech to lay down markers for how they think the Gulf Coast should be rebuilt – and to lay the blame on Bush for Washington's sluggish performance.

“The families in the Gulf … certainly don't need to hear another speech from President Bush,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “What they need is leadership. … Let's be clear about what Katrina was: a failure of leadership.” Reid called for “an American Marshall Plan” to rebuild the Gulf Coast and accused Republicans of balking at even greater spending on health, housing and education for victims.

Reid insisted on an independent commission modeled after the Sept. 11, 2001, panel to investigate what went wrong with Katrina. But Republicans rejected an independent inquiry. “We can't wait three years for those answers,” countered Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. “We need them immediately so we can quickly make the changes and protect all Americans.”

The House adopted a plan for a joint investigative committee that would have a Republican majority but grant Democrats authority to call witnesses and seek subpoenas from the GOP chairman. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., was tapped Thursday to serve as co-chairman with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Without waiting for the new committee to begin its work, Davis convened the first House hearing on the Katrina response at his Committee on Government Reform, inviting representatives from Los Angeles, Washington and Miami to testify about disaster preparations. “Whatever the threat, Katrina has forced officials across America to take another look at disaster plans that may not be as solid as they previously thought,” Davis said.

Bush in Pascagoula

Bush arrived here after a stop in Pascagoula. The New Orleans he found is a twisted shell of its former self, a once vibrant city that never slept but left for dead by Katrina's fury. Streets remain flooded, piles of garbage line the streets, and a stench seems to cling to every part of the French Quarter and beyond.

Vickie Johnston, 37, a hairdresser, sneaked into the city Thursday only to learn she had lost everything – her clothes, furniture and irreplaceables such as correspondence with her late grandfather and photos of her with her sister. She voted for Bush twice but feels betrayed by all government.

“They knew New Orleans was a fishbowl. They knew,” she said. “Now it's a toilet bowl. How can they do this to us? Why did they let the water get so high?”

In his speech hours later, Bush expressed understanding of such sentiments, acknowledging that the response “at every level of government was not well coordinated and was overwhelmed in the first few days.” The lesson he saw was the need for “greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces, the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice.”

As he did on Tuesday, Bush said he accepts accountability: “Four years after the frightening experience of September 11th, Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency. When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I as president am responsible for the problem, and for the solution.”

Post writer Spencer S. Hsu in Washington contributed to this story.