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Bush, speaking from New Orleans, casts vision of brighter days

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Reminding the nation of its valiant past and persistent resolve to press on through hardship, President Bush sought to lift the spirits of Americans discouraged by the “cruel and wasteful” hurricane that swept through the Gulf Coast nearly three weeks ago.

“In the life of this nation, we have often been reminded that nature is an awesome force, and that all life is fragile,” Bush said from the French Quarter in New Orleans Sept. 15. “We’re the heirs of men and women who lived through those first terrible winters at Jamestown and Plymouth, who rebuilt Chicago after a great fire and San Francisco after a great earthquake, who reclaimed the prairie from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

“Every time, the people of this land have come back from fire, flood and storm to build anew — and to build better than what we had before,” he added. “Americans have never left our destiny to the whims of nature, and we will not start now.”

The president spoke of the “tragedy that seems so blind and random” and said the aftermath has been “marked by acts of courage and kindness that make all Americans proud,” referring to the unprecedented disaster relief response that included many who were victims themselves reaching out to help others.

He told of an incident in which two men tried to break into a home in Chalmette, La., but the owner invited them in to stay and then took in 15 more people who had no place to go.

“Across the Gulf Coast, among people who have lost much and suffered much and given to the limit of their power, we are seeing that same spirit — a core of strength that survives all hurt, a faith in God no storm can take away, and a powerful American determination to clear the ruins and build better than before,” Bush said.

Because “there is no way to imagine America without New Orleans,” the president presented more plans for expediting reconstruction. Congress has approved more than $60 billion in emergency aid relief, he said, and workers from the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Labor, the Social Security Administration, the Postal Service and others are making tremendous progress in getting evacuees settled in temporary locations and returning to them some sense of normalcy.

With a goal of getting people out of shelters by the middle of October, Bush said the government is providing direct assistance to evacuees that allows them to rent apartments. In other situations, mobile homes are being brought in for temporary use.

“And in the work of rebuilding, as many jobs as possible should go to the men and women who live in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama,” he said.

Referring to an issue many commentators have raised in critiquing the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, the president acknowledged the persistent poverty in the region.

“That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America,” Bush said. “We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality.”

Bush announced he is proposing the creation of a Gulf Opportunity Zone, which will help jump-start the economy in the region by providing incentives for job creation. He also said he is proposing Worker Recovery Accounts, which would provide accounts of up to $5,000 for evacuees to draw upon in obtaining training and education for good jobs.

The president also proposed that Congress pass an Urban Homesteading Act, which would use government property to provide building sites to low-income citizens through a lottery. People could then build homes on the lots through a mortgage or help from a charitable organization like Habitat for Humanity.

In what promises to be “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen,” Bush said “all Americans are needed in this common effort.”

“It is the armies of compassion — charities and houses of worship and idealistic men and women — that give our reconstruction effort its humanity,” he said. “They offer to those who hurt a friendly face, an arm around the shoulder and the reassurance that in hard times they can count on someone who cares.”

Under the looming potential of another disaster coming in the form of a terrorist attack, Bush said the government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina by reviewing every action taken and making necessary changes “so that we are better prepared for any challenge of nature or act of evil men that could threaten our people.”

The president said such trials often remind people that they are stronger than they realize and that there is “a hope beyond all pain and death, a God who welcomes the lost to a house not made with hands. And they remind us that we’re tied together in this life, in this nation — and that the despair of any touches us all.”

As millions of Americans focused their attention on television sets, clinging to rare words of hope in the midst of great disaster, Bush finished his prime-time address by casting a vision for better days ahead.

“I know that when you sit on the steps of a porch where a home once stood or sleep on a cot in a crowded shelter, it is hard to imagine a bright future. But that future will come,” he said. “The streets of Biloxi and Gulfport will again be filled with lovely homes and the sound of children playing. The churches of Alabama will have their broken steeples mended and their congregations whole. And here in New Orleans, the street cars will once again rumble down St. Charles, and the passionate soul of a great city will return.

“In this place, there’s a custom for the funerals of jazz musicians. The funeral procession parades slowly through the streets, followed by a band playing a mournful dirge as it moves to the cemetery,” Bush said. “Once the casket has been laid in place, the band breaks into a joyful ‘second line’ — symbolizing the triumph of the spirit over death. Tonight the Gulf Coast is still coming through the dirge — yet we will live to see the second line.”

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  • Erin Curry