- The Washington Times - Friday, September 16, 2005

President Bush last night said the federal government will pay most of the estimated $200 billion to rebuild the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast in what he called “one of the largest reconstruction projects the world has ever seen.”

Standing in the heart of the historic French Quarter of New Orleans, a once-thriving city now deserted and still more than 50 percent flooded 18 days after Hurricane Katrina struck, the president also announced that he had ordered the Department of Homeland Security to conduct an immediate review of disaster-response plans in every major American city.

He acknowledged that “every level of government was not well-coordinated and was overwhelmed in the first few days” after the Category 4 storm slammed into Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

“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,” Mr. Bush said in a 20-minute speech.

“It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires 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.”

The president used most of his prime-time televised address to the nation to reassure Americans that the federal government now has the emergency response well in hand and to lay out a specific plan to rebuild New Orleans and other devastated areas on the Gulf Coast.

He said his administration will not turn a blind eye to the “persistent poverty” in the region that has led to a “legacy of inequality.”

Addressing the hundreds of thousands of evacuees forced from their homes by the hurricane, the president said, “You need to know that our whole nation cares about you — and in the journey ahead you are not alone.”

“Tonight, I also offer this pledge to 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. And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know: There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again.”

Mr. Bush, who traveled to the hard-hit Mississippi coast before delivering his speech from New Orleans, did not directly address how the federal government would pay for the massive project.

Still, with the water level receding by the hour, the president pledged that “federal funds will cover the great majority of the costs of repairing public infrastructure in the disaster zone, from roads and bridges to schools and water systems. Our goal is to get the work done quickly.”

But with some in Washington worried about the costs involved at a time of huge federal expenditures — the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost nearly $300 billion so far — Mr. Bush said taxpayers can rest assured that the reconstruction money will be monitored closely, with “a team of inspectors general reviewing all expenditures.”

Democrats continued to criticize the Bush administration’s response, with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi deriding the speech as “just words.”

“It takes more than just taking responsibility to right the many wrongs that occurred over the past two weeks. The American people need answers from independent experts outside of the political arena to learn from the past and prepare and protect our nation and our communities for the future. We can and must do better,” they said in a joint statement.

Congress already has approved $62.1 billion for rescue and relief efforts, with many private analysts forecasting that the expected $200 billion price tag of Katrina will add $100 billion or more to next year’s deficit.

White House officials have told Congress that the $51.8 billion approved late last week will fund the disaster relief effort only through the first week of October, and senior congressional appropriations aides have told the White House that they need to see the next request by next week. Republicans say the next bill could exceed $50 billion.

Top White House officials acknowledged that the federal government has no choice but to run up the deficit to meet the crisis in the Gulf Coast.

“The fact of the matter is when our nation faces these type of emergencies, it unfortunately requires us to deficit spend,” White House counselor Dan Bartlett said before Mr. Bush’s speech.

Mr. Bush proposed three specific initiatives to speed recovery in the region, calling for the creation of a Gulf Opportunity Zone to offer businesses tax breaks, provide federally owned land to “low-income citizens free of charge and pay evacuees up to $5,000 for job training, education and child care.

If Mr. Bush’s plan is put into effect, it would eclipse the Marshall Plan, which helped revive Europe after World War II and cost about $100 billion in today’s dollars.

Associated Press

[Leadin]’This great city will rise again’:[EndL] President Bush vowed last night that the country will not desert New Orleans.

Associated Press

President Bush toured the Chevron Pascagoula Refinery with company official Jeet Bindra in Mississippi yesterday during a trip to the Gulf Coast. He also addressed the nation from New Orleans.

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