US President George Bush said today the Gulf Coast must be rebuilt with an eye toward wiping out the persistent poverty and racial injustice plain to all in the suffering of the black and the poor in Hurricane Katrina’s wake.
“As we clear away the debris of a hurricane, let us also clear away the legacy of inequality,” Bush said during a national prayer service with other political leaders and religious figures from the affected region at the National Cathedral.”
Also today, White House officials said taxpayers will pay the bill for the massive reconstruction programme for the hurricane ravaged-Gulf Coast and that the huge expense will worsen the nation’s budget deficit.
Several dozen evacuees and first responders, all from New Orleans, filled one side wing. The president and his wife, Laura, sat solemnly in a front pew along with Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne.
Bush has proposed establishment of worker recovery accounts providing up to £2,500 for job training, education and child care during victims’ search for employment. He also proposed tax breaks for businesses in some of the devastated areas. The White House said Friday that each of those initiatives would cost about £1bn.
Bush said the goal was to get evacuees out of shelters by mid-October and into apartments and other homes, with assistance from the government.
Before Bush’s remarks today, Bishop Jakes, head of 30,000-member Potter’s House church in Dallas, delivered a powerful sermon in which he called upon Americans to “dare to discuss the unmentionable issues that confront us” and to not rest until the poor are raised to an acceptable living standard.
“Katrina, perhaps, she has done something to this nation that needed to be done,” Jakes said. “We can no longer be a nation that overlooks the poor and the suffering, that continues past the ghetto on our way to the Mardi Gras.”
Bush, faced with continuing questions about whether help would have been sent more quickly to the storm zone if most victims had not been poor and black, echoed those themes in brief remarks that were rich with religious refereces.
“Some of the greatest hardships fell upon citizens already facing lives of struggle, the elderly, the vulnerable and the poor,” he said. “As we rebuild homes and businesses, we will renew our promise as a land of equality and decency and one day Americans will look back at the response to Hurricane Katrina and say that our country grew not only in prosperity but in character and justice.”
As on yesterday, when Bush called for “bold action” to overcome poverty and discrimination, he offered no specific actions that should be taken.
At the White House, Al Hubbard, director of Bush’s National Economic Council, said the disaster costs – estimated at £100billion and beyond – are “coming from the American taxpayer.”
He acknowledged the costs would swell the deficit - projected at £160billion for the current year before Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast.
Some fiscal conservatives are expressing alarm at the prospect of such massive federal outlays without cutting other spending.
“It is inexcusable for the White House and Congress to not even make the effort to find at least some offsets to this new spending,” said Republican Sen Tom Coburn.
Claude Allen, the president’s domestic policy adviser, said the administration had not identified any budget cuts to offset the disaster expense. Congress already has approved £33 billion for the disaster, but that is expected to run out next month.
In his address to the nation last night from the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter, Bush said the recovery effort would be one of the largest reconstruction projects the world has ever seen and promised that the federal government would pay for most of it.
“There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again,” he said.
The government failed to respond adequately, with agencies that lacked co-ordination and were overwhelmed by Katrina and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans, Bush said. Dogged by criticism that Washington’s response to the hurricane was slow and inadequate, Bush said the nation has ”every right to expect” more effective federal action in a time of emergency.
The hurricane killed hundreds of people across five states, forced major evacuations and caused untold property damage.
Disaster planning must be a “national security priority,” he said, while ordering the Homeland Security Department to undertake an immediate review of emergency plans in every major American city and asking all Cabinet secretaries to join in a comprehensive review of the faulty response. He said the disaster revealed the need for greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces.
Bush faced the nation at a vulnerable point in his presidency. Most Americans disapprove of his handling of Katrina, and his job-approval rating has been dragged down to the lowest point of his presidency also because of dissatisfaction with the Iraq war and rising gasoline prices. He has struggled to demonstrate the same take-charge leadership he displayed after the Sept. 11 terror attacks four years ago.
“When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I as president am responsible for the problem, and for the solution,” Bush said.
“This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina.”
Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish near New Orleans, was happy with Bush’s speech.
“Mainly he gave hope, and right now in this area people need hope more than anything,” he told CBS’ The Early Show.
Bush repeated a hotline number for people to call to help reunite family members separated during the hurricane. Moments later, Democratic Sen John Kerry criticised Bush, saying “Leadership isn’t a speech or a toll-free number.”