- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — President Bush, visiting a still-suffering Gulf Coast, said today that Congress must help this ravaged city recover from Hurricane Katrina by approving billions he has requested for levee repair and compensation for Louisianans who lost homes.

“I’m getting a view of the progress that is being made,” Bush said after a tour by air and on the ground offered a chilling portrait of the pain that lingers six months after Katrina struck. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, no doubt about it.”

“You’ve got a pile of stuff here,” the president remarked at one point as a small bulldozer shoved a mattress, toys, a cooking pot, several pairs of blue jeans, a single brown shoe and a pair of women’s underwear down a nearby street.

Congress is poised to allocate $4.2 billion in flexible community development funds for areas affected by the hurricane, but lawmakers have decided to dedicate that money to all states affected by Katrina. Bush wants Congress to allocate the $4.2 billion just for Louisiana.

“The number fits into a well thought-out plan that has been put together by the local folks,” Bush said from the Industrial Canal levee, which breached during the storm and devastated the lower Ninth Ward.

As pile drivers could be heard working behind him to repair the damaged levee, Bush said Congress “shortchanged the process” by diverting $1.5 billion in levee-rebuilding money to non-New Orleans-related projects.

“Congress needs to restore the “1.5 billion to make sure this is a real commitment,” he said.

Many residents in the hurricane-battered region are frustrated and angry that more progress has not been made. Bush’s trip, his 10th since the hurricane hit, was aimed at three problem areas: efforts to restore New Orleans levees, removing still-persistent debris from affected communities and lagging efforts to get people back in their homes.

“Our job at all levels of government is to provide the confidence and the help necessary so that people … come home,” Bush said. “I fully understand - and I hope our country understands - the pain and agony that the people of New Orleans and Louisiana and the parishes surrounding New Orleans went through. But I think people would be impressed by the desire for the people in this part of the country to pick up and move on and rebuild.”

After landing in New Orleans, Bush got an eye-opening reminder of just how much work remains in a city that still is a mess.

From Marine One, he saw a landscape of bright blue tarps covering damaged roofs on homes, many apparently empty. Beneath him, trees were snapped on the ground. And railroad cars and other trash were strewn across the swamp and marsh land.

His motorcade took Bush through the hard-hit, primarily black lower Ninth Ward that is still largely abandoned. Demolition of the worst-damaged homes in the lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview areas began only this week.

Bush also saw boarded-up fast food restaurants and other businesses, abandoned homes spray-painted with big Xs on the front and piles of garbage on the side of the road. Stray dogs roamed the street, and some homes had mass-produced red-and-white signs blaring, “Save our Neighborhood. No Bulldozing.” Other homes were flattened.

Though few people were around to see the president pass by, two young women in a small group of neighbors held up a handmade sign that said “Where’s my government?” One of the women flashed a thumbs down at the president’s motorcade.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin escorted Bush into the entrance of a pink duplex home, with “Keep Out! No Trespassing!” signs on the porch and mold covering the walls at least chest high.

One of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, Katrina killed more than 1,300 people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, left hundreds of thousands of people homeless and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage.

Bush said majority of debris on public property has been removed, with most remaining on private property - in yards or inside homes that need to be gutted or demolished. He urged residents to come home to consider giving permission to local authorities.

“They need to get back to their houses so they can decide what to keep and what to remove,” he said. “The problem is, obviously, many homeowners are still displaced - and that’s why we’re working at all levels of government to encourage evacuees to inspect their properties and to salvage what they can and to make decisions about the future.”

More than three-fourths of New Orleans was flooded after Katrina sent water through failed levees. Bush said the Army Corps of Engineers told him it is “on a schedule” to meet a June 1 deadline - the start of the year’s hurricane season - to rebuild the city’s flood protection system so it is as good or better than it was before Katrina.

“There’s a lot of concrete, a lot of steel being put in the ground to protect the levee system,” the president said. “If people don’t have confidence in the levee system, they’re not going to want to come back. People aren’t going to want to spend money or invest.”

Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, head of the Corps, said that 100 of 169 miles of the city’s damaged levees have been restored. But he acknowledged that won’t prevent flooding in low-lying areas if a storm as powerful as Katrina slams the coast this year. Bush said that the entire levee system will be better and stronger than before by September 2007.

Independent experts have accused the Corps of taking shortcuts to rebuild the levees quickly and of using materials that could leave large sections of the system significantly weaker than before Katrina. Strock denied the allegations.

Later in the day, the president was to visit part of New Orleans’ levee system, and then fly east to the Biloxi-Gulfport area of Mississippi, another state hit hard by Katrina.

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