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President Bush Visits Gulf Coast for Katrina Anniversary

August 28, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: President Bush began his two-day visit to the Gulf in Biloxi, Mississippi. After lunch with community leaders there, he toured a damaged neighborhood with Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and U.S. Senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran.

During the speech to local residents, the president pledged the federal government would make good on its promise to help rebuild.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: A year ago, I committed our federal government to help you. I said we have a duty to help the local people recover and rebuild, and I meant what I said.

Working with Thad and Trent Lott, and other members of the United States Congress, we have appropriated $110 billion to help rebuild this area. It is a strong federal commitment that we will keep.

We understand people are still anxious to get in their home. We understand people hear about help and wonder where it is. We know that. But the first thing is, is that this federal government has made a commitment to help. And it starts with a large check.

It also means that, in order for the rebuilding to be as strong as we want, there has to be a partnership with the federal government and the state and local governments.

RAY SUAREZ: Out of the $110 billion in federal funds approved by Congress to help rebuild the Gulf Coast, so far some $22 billion in aid has been allocated to the state of Mississippi. But much of the money has yet to be distributed.

Some 35,000 Mississippi families are still living in FEMA trailers. The president said he was encouraged by the determination of those who stayed and those who were returning home.

GEORGE W. BUSH: See, there’s a new Mississippi that’s coming, and you’re going to see it in the construction of homes and the return of local businesses.

This requires a different kind of courage, but it’s a courage, nevertheless, for people to take risks and to rebuild and say, “I’m not going to let the storm disrupt my life forever.”

See, you’ve got people here who are leading the reconstruction. We’ll help you. We’ve committed more than $3 billion in housing grants, and that money is beginning to flow to the homeowners.

I know there’s some frustration, but I want to appreciate the state working hard to make sure that, when that money is spent, it’s spent well and it goes to people who deserve it. That’s what you expect, and that’s what’s going to happen.

The checks have begun to roll; they’re beginning to move. You can’t drive through this state without seeing signs of recovery and renewal. It’s just impossible to miss the signs of hope. And you’ve done it the old-fashioned way, with vision and hard work and resolve.

Well short of expectations

Ann Duplessis
State Senator
More and more, I learned, the more and more I've talked to folks, I realize that it perhaps was not a priority, in the sense of our definition of priority, at the federal level. And so that is where it all began, in my opinion.

RAY SUAREZ: At the end of the day, President Bush traveled to New Orleans where he'll stay through tomorrow. I visited New Orleans this weekend and spoke with community leaders about the state of their city.

We've gathered a diverse group of stakeholders, holding a diverse group of opinions, to look back at the last year since the storm and ahead to the continuing recovery of New Orleans. And we've gathered them in a legendary performance space dedicated to keeping New Orleans' musical heritage alive and flourishing, Preservation Hall in the French Quarter.

I'm joined by Calvin Mackie, engineering professor and member of the board of the Louisiana Recovery Authority; Sean Reilly, chairman of the state and the legislative task force of the Louisiana Recovery Authority; Benjamin Jaffe, director of Preservation Hall and the leader of the Musician Hurricane Relief Fund; and Senator Ann Duplessis, a member of the State Senate of Louisiana, representing the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East.

I'd like to begin by looking back at the past year and getting an idea from everybody whether you think this city, this parish, this metropolitan area is where you thought it would be a year since the storm -- Calvin Mackie?

CALVIN MACKIE, Tulane University: Looking back over the last year, I definitely -- we are definitely not where I thought we would be after one year. And there are many components to that answer.

One, we thought we would be further along in terms of federal dollars flowing. Two, we thought we'd be further along in terms of debris removal. And we definitely thought we'd be further along in terms of our overall comprehensive rebuilding plan. And, four, I thought we'd definitely be further along in a comprehensive plan to rebuild the levees from the Army Corps of Engineers.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Duplessis, you get to look at this, both from the state legislature in Baton Rouge and as someone who represents a very hard-hit district here. Is New Orleans where you thought it should be after a year?

ANN DUPLESSIS, State Senator: Absolutely not. The federal government, they're not moving in the most appropriate and expedient manner. You know, I kept an opinion to myself as it relates to, did the federal government believe that we were a priority or this was an event that warranted faster, more swifter movement.

And in the beginning, I wanted to believe that they did. More and more, I learned, the more and more I've talked to folks, I realize that it perhaps was not a priority, in the sense of our definition of priority, at the federal level. And so that is where it all began, in my opinion.

Now, at the state level, I think that of course politics in some aspect played because we had a whole state of legislators who also wanted to have their insight, and their piece, and their opinions, and their decisions on what happens with the money, how it happens, and when it happens. You know, when you talk to the individual, the wait is too long, even if it's an hour.

Fixing a "manmade" disaster

Sean Reilly
Louisiana Recovery Authority
I think history will reflect that this was not a natural disaster, actually; this was a manmade disaster; this was an engineering failure.

RAY SUAREZ: How about you, Ben Jaffe? When you think about what's been accomplished in the year, or do you look back and think, "Wow, we've done a lot," or, "We're not near where we should have been"?

BEN JAFFE, Musical Director, Preservation Hall: I'm surprised at what hasn't been done. I'm surprised that it's taken this long to get certain things done in the city. I make no illusion to what we're up against here. I was here for the hurricane. I saw the destruction.

A lot of my friends are so frustrated that they don't want to come home again. How do you come home after a year, considering the expense of moving, the expense of creating a home somewhere else, finding a job, having lost your home? These aren't things that are -- that I read about. These are things I experience on a daily basis. These are the phone calls I receive every day. This is what I contend with every day.

RAY SUAREZ: Sean Reilly, you wanted to jump in?

SEAN REILLY, Louisiana Recovery Authority: Well, you know, when people ask me about the pace of the recovery, what I'm encouraging people to do is re-reflect. Yes, let's learn the lessons. Let's see perhaps where perhaps we made mistakes. We can make mid-course corrections.

But at the end of the day, let's remember that what we're about is rebuilding a great American city, about re-establishing a southern half of a state that got absolutely devastated. And if we start saying that it's the fed's fault or the state's fault or the city's fault, you know, that's really not going to be a dialogue that's going to get us anywhere.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, but on the other hand, isn't a necessary part to hold people accountable who made promises to electorates, who made promises to jurisdictions, and in the view of those jurisdictions, haven't kept those promises?

SEAN REILLY: Well, absolutely. And, you know, first and foremost, when you're talking about New Orleans, you need to talk about safety and levees. And, you know, it's taken us a long time to get to a place where we could hold the Army Corps of Engineers accountable for what happened to this city.

I think history will reflect that this was not a natural disaster, actually; this was a manmade disaster; this was an engineering failure. And when you reflect on that as a root cause, then it brings you to a different place, in terms of solutions and in terms of, you know, how do you bring this city back in a safe way? How do you get people to understand where the dangers are and get them out of harm's way?

Protecting all New Orleanians

Calvin Mackie
Tulane University
It goes straight to class. It's a class argument. So if most of the middle class were here, then we should focus all of our energy and effort only on bringing back the middle class?

RAY SUAREZ: How do you bring back a city that's economically sustainable? It sounded like, during the year, there were some debates that walked right up to the edge of acknowledging that maybe some neighborhoods either shouldn't be rebuilt, or shouldn't be rebuilt first, or people should be triaged, the footprint of the city should change.

They walked right up to the edge of it and then backed off because they just couldn't acknowledge either that some places were going to be very difficult to bring back or that some people might be better off in Houston or Atlanta or Memphis.

SEAN REILLY: Planning, if done correctly, actually empowers homeowners to make their own decisions. One of the reasons that the Urban Land Institute's original discussion about the size of the city and the shrinking of the footprint, they produced a purple map, and they showed it to everybody.

And it came down from on high, and they didn't do the hard work. They didn't do the neighborhood-by-neighborhood discussions where homeowners could weigh in on how they felt about it. That's why that was rejected.

CALVIN MACKIE: I guess the real question is this: Does every American citizen deserve to be protected just like anyone else? If that is the answer, then the question is: What are we going to do to make sure that every American citizen in this country and, in this case in New Orleans, is properly protected? And that's goes back to the levees issues.

Now, if we don't do what's necessary by every American citizen, then who has the right to stand in judgment to decide whether or not my neighborhood should not be rebuilt based on that neighborhood?

You look at Lakeview. Lakeview has some of the lowest areas in the city of New Orleans, and no one has not called for not rebuilding Lakeview. The Lower Nine is not called the Lower Ninth Ward because it's the lowest place. It's called the Lower Nine because it's below the Industrial Canal. It actually has actually some of the higher areas.

So when we get into, I guess, the discussion about what neighborhoods do we rebuild, what don't we rebuild, it becomes highly charged.

RAY SUAREZ: You noted that Lakeview is lower than much of the Lower Ninth Ward, but at the same time there's a lot more equity there and a lot more individual wealth that makes bringing back some blocks very quickly much more possible.

CALVIN MACKIE: It goes straight to class. It's a class argument. So if most of the middle class were here, then we should focus all of our energy and effort only on bringing back the middle class? Yes, we need a middle class, but we also have to make sure that every American citizen has the right to rightfully come back to not his house or her house but his home.

And we get into a discussion about neighborhoods and houses, but these are people's homes. And when you look at it as a home, then that million-dollar house has as much value as that $30,000 shanty or house that's been shown all over the world on the cover of different magazines.

RAY SUAREZ: But, Senator, when Professor Mackie notes the role of class in this, has New Orleans figured out a way for people who have desire but not a lot of capital to gain sweat equity, to have a role in the rebuilding, even if they don't have capital to leverage in that exercise?

ANN DUPLESSIS: Well, you see, therein is the frustration, I believe, that we're seeing now in our citizens in all classes, especially in the low- to moderate-income areas, classes.

We have been told by the president of the United States "at any cost." The message was, "We're going to bring you back and bring you back to your homes at any cost."

We then had planners to say, "Well, we can't," instead of, "How can we?" At any cost, how can we?

If there were neighborhoods that were purple or green or whatever the color was and those neighborhoods were deemed a little bit more risky, then those smart planners and those smart urban developers should have said, "This is how we get it to where it has to be so people can come home, at any cost." That didn't happen.

Rebuild and move on

Benjamin Jaffe
Preservation Hall
I do know that, if we don't address the situation here, that we will lose a culture that is responsible for one of the most amazing treasures that we have in the United States. We're the city that gave birth to jazz.

RAY SUAREZ: Ben Jaffe, what has to happen from here on out?

BEN JAFFE: There's a lot that needs to happen. And I'm a little -- I continue to be frustrated, because the conversation that we're having now is the same conversation that we've been having all year.

There is a lot of planning that needs to still take place. There's a lot of planning that needed to take place that didn't get done, a lot of work that didn't get done.

I don't necessarily know what needs to happen. I do know that, if we don't address the situation here, that we will lose a culture that is responsible for one of the most amazing treasures that we have in the United States. We're the city that gave birth to jazz.

You know, we're a beat-down people right now. We have all suffered for a year. Psychologically, the toll that it has taken on us is amazing. Every day we wake up, it's not like one day we wake up and it's better than yesterday. It's a little bit better. Maybe there's less trash on your corner.

And it's a real fear of mine, it's a real fear for the first time in my life -- I'm not optimistic about the future of this city. And that really breaks my heart, because if there has ever been a cheerleader that has yelled louder than anyone about New Orleans, it's been me.

RAY SUAREZ: What has to happen now, Senator?

ANN DUPLESSIS: Well, as we begin to rebuild and as we begin to repopulate our city, we need to understand those dynamics that are going to have an impact on those residents that are coming back, their ability to stay, and the affordability or the accessibility to insurance because, if we can't get insurance or can't afford it, you lose.

The costs of just simple utilities, if you can't afford to turn the electricity on, we lose. The costs of buying groceries, if we can't afford to buy food and eat here, we lose.

RAY SUAREZ: Sean Reilly, what has to happen now?

SEAN REILLY: Well, Ray, in my view, it's about two things: hope and confidence. Confidence has a lot to do with the levees, and we've got to get that part right. But there's some other components to confidence.

When you rebuild your house, do you know you're going to have a neighborhood? Do you know that investment is going to be protected? And to that end, we have to do the comprehensive neighborhood planning process for Orleans Parish.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, all over the local news is Tropical Storm Ernesto becoming Hurricane Ernesto. Is New Orleans ready for another storm, more ready than it was before Katrina?

CALVIN MACKIE: We're not ready. I mean, people are really anxious any time a storm gets into the Gulf, and now we have one in the Gulf one year after Katrina. People are really nervous.

Physically, obviously, we're not ready physically, in terms of levees. And spiritually, I mean, the human spirit is strong, but how much more can we take? The last thing we need is another hurricane.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator, are we ready?

ANN DUPLESSIS: I'm not optimistic that we are completely ready. I've heard of somewhat of a plan that says people will meet at a bus station or will meet at a train station, but to where? You know, it's the same issue that was faced with Katrina. I'm just not optimistic that we are completely ready at this time.

RAY SUAREZ: Sean Reilly, is this city ready for another hurricane?

SEAN REILLY: There's going to be some things we get right. You know, I think we'll get an evacuation right. I think we can handle that. Certainly, we're at a heightened state of awareness.

But in terms of, is the city's psyche prepared? Are the city's defenses prepared? You know, I have my doubts. You know, I ask myself, are you a bad person if you pray that a hurricane hits somebody else? But I think we can be forgiven, given what we've been through, if we just ask this one to go someplace else.

RAY SUAREZ: Wow, I'm going to have to talk to a theologian about that.

Well, guests, thank you all very much. Great to talk to you.