September 16, 2005

Battered Bush in pledge to rebuild, whatever the cost

From Tim Reid in Washington


PRESIDENT BUSH will take charge today of the largest domestic reconstruction effort in US history to rebuild New Orleans and other areas hit by Hurricane Katrina.

Mr Bush, who was unveiling the plan in a peak-time address last night from the deserted heart of the French Quarter, will call for an unprecedented government commitment to rebuild the region. But some Republicans said that the huge bill would explode the federal deficit and undermine his second-term agenda.

White House aides, briefing reporters before last night’s speech, said that Mr Bush would not put an exact figure on the rebuilding effort. But the final cost is expected to exceed $200 billion (£111 billion) within a year, roughly the same amount spent by the US in Iraq over the past three years, and dwarfing the cost of previous natural disasters.

In excerpts released before the speech, Mr Bush said the rebuilding would be "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen", adding: "Federal funds will cover the great majority of the costs.

"We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives," he pledged. "There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again."

Mr Bush conceded that the hurricane had revealed how ill-equipped America was to deal with another terrorist attack. "In a time of terror threats and weapons of mass destruction, the danger to our citizens reaches much wider than a faultline or a floodplain. I consider detailed emergency planning to be a national security priority.

"I want to know all the facts about the government response to Hurricane Katrina. It was not a normal hurricane — and the normal disaster relief system was not equal to it."

The President’s television address came as polls showed that the hurricane had severely eroded support for the Iraq war and his leadership. White House strategists evidently calculate that the only way to regain public support after the initial disastrous response to Katrina is to spend whatever it takes to rebuild the region.

Worryingly for the White House, support for the Iraq campaign has dropped to record lows, and fewer Americans than ever back the global war on terrorism, the bedrock of Mr Bush’s foreign policy goal of spreading democracy in the Arab world. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, cutting spending on Iraq is Americans’ top choice for funding the Katrina recovery. The survey showed that high petrol prices and worries about the economy and Katrina have driven domestic issues to the top of the public agenda.

Fifty-five per cent of Americans now want US troops brought home and 60 per cent believe that rebuilding the Gulf Coast is more important than establishing a democratic Iraq.

By 51 per cent to 37 per cent they believe that the Iraq war has not been worth the financial and human cost. Mr Bush’s overall approval rating was 40 per cent, the latest in a number of polls showing record dissatisfaction with his performance.

Mr Bush will speak at a service for storm victims at the National Cathedral in Washington today. As the President prepared for his address, Ray Nagin, the Mayor of New Orleans, announced a "phased repopulation" of 180,000 people to the city within two weeks, with the business district and the French Quarter among the first parts to reopen.

"The city of New Orleans will start to breathe again," he promised. "We’re going to bring this city back."