NEW ORLEANS — Former President George W. Bush enjoyed sympathetic audiences in New Orleans and Mississippi on Friday as he returned to the region where Hurricane Katrina sank his popularity 10 years ago.
Bush avoided parts of New Orleans that have yet to recover from the devastating storm, such as the Lower 9th Ward, where President Barack Obama mingled with hundreds of residents the day before. Bush did not tour the federally managed levees whose failures flooded 80 per cent of the city.
Instead, he visited a school rebuilt with support from former first lady Laura Bush’s foundation, then flew to Gulfport, Mississippi, honouring police and firefighters who saved lives after Katrina’s towering storm surge swamped the coast.
“The 10th anniversary is a good time to honour courage and resolve,” Bush said in Gulfport. “It’s also a good time to remember we live in a compassionate nation.”
Bush took no questions at either event, and made no mention of his administration’s lacklustre initial response to Katrina, which historians consider a low point for his presidency.
In New Orleans, he focused instead on promoting charter schools.
“Isn’t it amazing? The storm nearly destroyed New Orleans and yet, now, New Orleans is the beacon for school reform,” Bush said at the city’s oldest public school, which was badly flooded and almost abandoned before it reopened a year later as Warren Easton Charter High School.
The comeback from Katrina has been uneven. While Mississippi’s Gulf Coast recovered all its population and then some, Bush and his team have been so deeply resented in New Orleans that Carnival goers displayed them in effigy at annual Mardi Gras parades.
For days after the storm, bodies decomposed in the streets and thousands of people begged to be rescued from their rooftops in New Orleans. In Mississippi, relief came so slowly that Biloxi’s Sun Herald newspaper published a front-page editorial, entitled “Help Us Now.”
The storm set off a “confluence of blunders,” and Bush’s approval ratings never recovered, said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University who wrote “The Great Deluge,” a detailed account of the first days after Katrina.
Bush didn’t help his image by initially flying over the flooded city in Air Force One without touching down, then saying “Heckuva job, Brownie” to praise his ill-prepared Federal Emergency Management Agency director, Michael Brown, who resigned shortly thereafter.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said Bush isn’t to blame for the disaster that ultimately killed more than 1,830 people. “I think he certainly did a tremendous amount of good. It was just a tremendous storm. No one was prepared,” Bryant said.
Bush’s administration eventually spent $140 billion on the recovery. On Friday, he praised former Gov. Haley Barbour, former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott and current U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, for making sure much of it landed in Mississippi.
In New Orleans, most city schools had been foundering before Katrina, suffering from pervasive corruption, broken buildings and failing grades. Only 56 per cent of the students graduated high school on time.
Katrina served as a catalyst for a state takeover. Louisiana eventually turned all 57 schools under its control into independently run charters, publicly funded and accountable to education officials for results, but with autonomy in daily operations.
The city’s four-year graduation rate has since climbed to 73 per cent. Many parents lament the loss of neighbourhood schools, and question teacher qualifications, saying some lack experience and certification. But Bush said they now can choose where to send their kids, and principals and teachers have more authority to cut through bureaucracy.
Bush also visited Warren Easton a year after the storm, when the school was newly reopened and nearly all its students remained homeless, living in FEMA trailers or sleeping on couches. Now, the school graduates 100 per cent of its seniors.
“We have fond memories of his last visit,” said Arthur Hardy, a 1965 Warren Easton graduate who became a celebrity in New Orleans for his expertise in all things Mardi Gras.
Civil rights lawyer Tracie Washington, who directs the Louisiana Justice Institute, said Bush failed to live up the promise he made in Jackson Square shortly after Katrina to tackle historic injustices in New Orleans. “I would say the mission has not been accomplished,” she said.