NEW ORLEANS (BP)–After spending the night aboard the USS Iwo Jima command center docked on the Mississippi River, President Bush visited the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast region for the third time Sept. 12 — this time riding through the flooded streets of New Orleans in a military truck, flanked by the city’s mayor and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
“There’s progress being made, but there’s a lot of serious and hard work that’s yet to be done,” Bush told reporters after receiving on-the-ground briefings on search and rescue operations, cleanup efforts and local, state and federal coordination.
He insisted that the people of New Orleans will decide how their city is rebuilt, not the federal government.
“I think the best policy is one in which the federal government doesn’t come down here and say, ‘Here’s what your city will look like,’” Bush said. “The best policy is one where the local folks say, ‘Here’s what we want our city to look like and let’s work together to achieve that vision.’”
The president also took questions from the media, including one about the racial component that some say hindered the evacuation process.
“My attitude is this: The storm didn’t discriminate and neither will the recovery effort,” Bush said. “When those Coast Guard choppers, many of whom were first on the scene, were pulling people off roofs, they didn’t check the color of a person’s skin. They wanted to save lives.”
Questions about possible mistakes in the early hours of the aftermath continued, but Bush refused to place blame on anyone. Instead, he said he is focused on learning the appropriate lessons from the crisis and preparing for future events.
“I know there’s been a lot of second-guessing. I can assure you I’m not interested in that,” Bush said. “What I’m interested in is solving problems. And there will be time to take a step back and to take a sober look at what went right and what didn’t go right. There’s a lot of information floating around that will be analyzed in an objective way, and that’s important. And it’s important for the people of this country to understand that all of us want to learn lessons. If there were to be a biological attack of some kind, we’ve got to make sure we understand the lessons learned to be able to deal with catastrophe.”
One reporter asked the president whether the war in Iraq would stall the recovery in the Gulf Coast region, but he said the United States has “enough troops to do both.”
“It is preposterous to claim that the engagement in Iraq meant there wasn’t enough troops here, just pure and simple,” Bush said, reiterating his stance that the war in Iraq is essential to the overall progress of democracy in the Middle East.
The president had a clear message of hope for those displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
“What I want the people of this state and the state of Mississippi to understand is that we’re moving forward with relief plans,” Bush said. “And we’re going to move forward with reconstruction plans, and we’re going to do so in a coordinated way.
“It’s very important for the folks of New Orleans to understand that, at least as far as I’m concerned, this great city has got ample talent and ample genius to set the strategy and set the vision,” he added. “Our role at the federal government is — obviously, within the law — is to help them realize that vision.”
From New Orleans, Bush flew to Gulfport, Miss., where he met again with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour for another update on the recovery efforts there.