On New Orleans, Not A Word From Bush

President Bush talks to workers of Betsy's Pancake House after having breakfast with New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2006 in New Orleans. Bush is visiting the Gulf Coast to mark the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) AP

New Orleans is still a mess and the pace of recovery across the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Katrina's strike remains achingly slow after 17 months. But none of this captured President Bush's attention on the year's biggest night for showcasing policy priorities.

In the president's State of the Union speech last year, delivered just five months after the disaster, the devastation merited only 156 words out of more than 5,400.

On Tuesday night, the president spoke for almost exactly as long before a joint session of Congress. But Katrina received not a single mention.

"At this time I almost broke my TV, knocked it off the stand," Chris Davis, told CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian. Davis, a Vietnam veteran, is one of the displaced residents from New Orleans now living near Baton Rouge, La.

"People were already feeling forgotten. I think this may potentially reinforce that," Toni Bankston, a mental health caseworker, told CBS News.

Officials in Louisiana were also disappointed by the oversight.

"The governor is supremely disappointed," said a spokeswoman for Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco. "The president's speech was promoted as focusing on his domestic priorities, yet we see where hurricane recovery is on his list. It's not even on the radar."

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said, "With nearly 6,000 words about the nation's priorities, not one single word was devoted to the rebuilding and protection of affected areas of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. It was a glaring omission."

Republican Sen. David Vitter's criticism was more muted.

"I was disappointed somewhat," Vitter said, "but I didn't necessarily expect a significant mention primarily because the federal government has provided a great deal of funding and aid and because most of the hurdles we face are at the state level."

By contrast, in the days ahead of the president's address, Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia compared the U.S. money being spent on Iraqi reconstruction with the fraction committed to the Gulf Coast rebuilding. And, chosen to give the Democratic response to Mr. Bush on Tuesday, Webb brought up the continuing struggle of Katrina victims right away, listing "restoring the vitality of New Orleans" just behind education and health care among his party's most pressing priorities, according to the text of his speech distributed in advance.

The disaster did rate one representative with a good seat for Mr. Bush's speech.

Craig Cuccia, co-founder of Reconcile New Orleans, was one of two dozen guests seated in first lady Laura Bush's box above the House chamber. Cuccia's nonprofit youth organization helps get kids off the streets and into the hospitality industry by giving them jobs and training at its Café Reconcile located in Central City, one of New Orleans' toughest neighborhoods.

Spared Katrina's widespread flooding, the restaurant was among the city's first businesses to reopen its doors and served emergency workers, first responders, construction crews and returning residents.

But Cuccia's presence at the State of the Union address had as much or more to do with Mrs. Bush's drive to help at-risk youth, particularly boys, stay out of gangs and other trouble. The first lady extended the invitation after meeting Cuccia on a visit to the cafe earlier this month.

Katrina's relative absence from the president's public radar screen is not new.

Seeking to recover from criticism of his initial reaction to the storm, the president focused intensively on the Gulf Coast in the weeks and months after Katrina hit. But that attention level quickly dropped off, and he hardly mentions the region now. His only visit there in the last eight months was to mark one year since the storm's strike in August.

"This anniversary is not an end. And so I come back to say that we will stand with the people of southern Louisiana and southern Mississippi until the job is done," he pledged then.
  • Joel Roberts

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