Press Gaggle by Scott Stanzel and Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Recovery Don Powell
Aboard Air Force One
En Route New Orleans, Louisiana
5:45 P.M. EDT
MR. STANZEL: I'll go through the President's schedule a little bit, and then -- for today and tomorrow. And then we're lucky to be joined here by Don Powell, and he can go through some of the efforts to help rebuild the Gulf Coast. And he'll take your questions, and then if you have any other extraneous questions at the end, I can take those, as well.
Just before we took off, you should all have received -- just want to draw to your attention a statement by the President on new Census figures that show that incomes are rising, more Americans are pulling themselves out of poverty, but more work remains to help Americans get better access to health care.
As you all know, as well, the President had a foreign leader call earlier today that occurred just before 1:00 p.m. Eastern time. The President called Abdullah Gul this morning to congratulate him -- this morning Pacific time -- to congratulate him on his election as President of Turkey. The President reiterated the United States' commitment to a strong relationship with our partner and ally, Turkey.
On the Gulf Coast trip, we are obviously now en route to New Orleans. Don Powell, the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts, is on board and will be with us throughout the visit.
Tonight and tomorrow the President and Mrs. Bush will visit New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. This will be the President's 15th visit to the region since Hurricane Katrina. The President continues to follow through on his commitment to help local citizens rebuild their lives and communities on the Gulf Coast. The federal government has provided more than $114 billion for relief, recovery and rebuilding efforts, and over $96 billion of which has been disbursed or is available for the states to draw from.
A little bit on his schedule. Tonight at 7:00 p.m., if we make up some time in the air, the President will attend dinner with Louisiana cultural and community leaders. That location is to be announced, and we'll have a list of participants for you on that. That is in New Orleans.
Then tomorrow morning at 8:45 a.m., the President and Mrs. Bush will participate in a meeting with Louisiana education officials. That will be at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School. That is closed press. We'll also have a list of participants for you on that meeting. At 9:20 a.m. tomorrow morning, President and Mrs. Bush will remain at the school and highlight the importance of education and rebuilding the city after Hurricane Katrina. That's pool coverage. At 9:38 a.m., the President and Mrs. Bush will observe a moment of silence to mourn the lives lost during Hurricane Katrina. That's also at the school. At 9:45 a.m., the President will make a statement at the school on New Orleans rebuilding efforts.
Then we will travel to Mississippi, to Bay St. Louis. The President and Mrs. Bush will participate in a briefing on Mississippi rebuilding efforts. That's at 12:25 p.m., and that is closed press. And at 1:00 p.m., the President makes a statement on Mississippi rebuilding efforts. And that will be at Our Lady of the Gulf Parish Community Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and that will be pool coverage. And we return to Washington and will arrive in Washington at about 5:45 p.m. tomorrow evening.
So that's the President's schedule for the next day or so. And with that, I'll turn it over to Chairman Powell to give you a sense of our rebuilding efforts.
CHAIRMAN POWELL: Thanks, Scott.
Anybody want to start with the questions, or do you want me to say a couple of things to begin with? Let me make a couple of comments, and then I'll take your questions.
I think it's important -- I always do this when -- I think it's important to, once again, remember how large and catastrophic event this was. I don't have to tell you that New Orleans was under water about 60 days, the city the size of nine Manhattans, displaced 1,500,000 people. So the devastation you can -- and in Mississippi, there was more debris in the three counties of Mississippi than the World Trade Center and all of Hurricane Andrew combined. So it's a large, large, catastrophic event.
When the federal government thinks about -- we divide our efforts into three areas as it relates to long-term rebuilding. One is, what are we directly responsible for? And this past week an example of that is rebuilding the levee system. The levee systems are better and stronger than they've ever been in the history of New Orleans. In order for New Orleans to be a viable city going forward, the most important thing in the long-term rebuilding is the levee system. People want to feel that they're safe.
When I first went down there, there were three issues, I came back and told the President, specifically as it relates to New Orleans. One was levees, two was levees, and three was levees. Levees on the mind of everybody down there. And there was -- in my view, I tended in the top three, perhaps the most important announcement this past week as it relates to this President's commitment to rebuilding the levee system, and that simply was that we were announcing that the Corps and we would seek funds to rebuild the levee system to the 100 level hurricane protection. And what was more important, we showed maps for the entire New Orleans area -- how it would relate to your specific area once that is completed. And you can see dramatic differences between before Katrina, the way they are now, and after that work is done. That's targeted to be done in 2011.
Also this President spoke to a need that's been occurring for some time in New Orleans -- that relates to the internal drainage system. New Orleans floods for lots of reasons, just normal rainfall. And so the President will ask the Congress to spend $1 billion 300 million to enhance that internal drainage system. So it's a hurricane protection, $7.5 billion, and I think that is terribly important, because if you're -- everything else falls off of that. If you're going to move back to New Orleans, you're going to rebuild your life in New Orleans, you want to be able to know I'm safe behind the levee system.
What was more dramatic, if you live at 101 North Rosemont Street, you can home in on your home via the technology we have, and see what your home would look like if, in fact, the one in 100 years flood occurred. So it's dramatic about what kind of protection this will give to the people in New Orleans.
That's an example of what the federal government is directly responsible for. The second area is, we're partners with the state and the locals in certain things, and partners such as the project work sheets that you hear a lot about, the money coming down to rebuild the infrastructure. That's terribly important. We want to be good partners in that area. Again I'm homing in on New Orleans because that's where we're going. I could talk about Mississippi, would be happy to answer a question about Mississippi, but New Orleans -- it's estimated that the infrastructure rebuilding will cost $6.3 billion -- $6.3 billion. Of that amount, the federal government has obligated to states 80 percent. That's in their bank account. They have the money. And the state has obligated only about 50 percent of that back to the locals.
Let me give you specifics on the city of New Orleans. It's estimated the infrastructure for the city of New Orleans is $1.8 billion. And the federal government has obligated toward that end about $1.3 billion. Now, there has been a certain amount of frustration as relates to that. Our office works with FEMA very directly about making sure that the federal government is not an impediment to that. And we're going to -- we have announced this past week that we're going to have a website directed and committed to transparency, where, if you're a stakeholder, if you're a mom, you're a father, and you want to know when your school, your fire station is going to be rebuilt and where is it in this process, you're going to be able to access the web and see where the holdup is. That's, again, transparency. And it's very powerful. It's like those maps -- you're going to be able to -- you don't have to guess, you're going to be able to see that. And that will be enhanced as we go forward.
That's an example of the partnership. Then there's another area that is the exclusive authority and responsibility of the state. And example of that is the Road Home Program. As you know, the Road Home Program uses CDBG money that the taxpayers, under the leadership of this President, committed to the people to rebuild their homes. It's an exclusive program of the state. They design the program, they administer the program. Are we interested in the program? Absolutely. Do we have weekly conversations about where are we on this thing? We make sure that the federal government is not an impediment in that. But that program is an exclusive -- ran by the state.
Okay, so those are kind of three things that I talk about as we talk about rebuilding. And I'll be happy to answer specific questions about other areas of the quality of life, of education to health care, to criminal justice. And I focus more on New Orleans because that's where we're going, but Mississippi obviously is critical to the rebuilding of this whole area, too.
Q: -- question which is -- the President promised in Jackson Square that New Orleans would not only be rebuilt, but would be better than it was before. And doesn't that kind of promise sort of require not trying to delineate, well, this is our responsibility, but that's your responsibility? Doesn't this require getting in there and saying, it doesn't really matter whose responsibility it is, we're going to make it happen?
CHAIRMAN POWELL: Well, I think it's -- we've got direct responsibility over the levees. No one shares that with us. So I think it's important that we focus on that. And I think he has spoken to some of those issues, it's going to be better. The levee system, which is the fundamental --
Q: I'm not asking about specifics. I'm asking about over all. I mean, certainly the levee system is primarily and exclusively the responsibility of the federal government. But doesn't a promise like that require that you look at everything and say, well, I'm not going to ignore that just because it might not be in my area?
CHAIRMAN POWELL: We're involved in all components. We're involved to make sure that the federal government -- whatever the federal government resources or needs may be, or may not -- that doesn't mean that we don't focus in on these other issues. We do a lot.
For instance, the Attorney General is down there today setting up a domestic violence center. That -- criminal justice is a local issue, but we have -- the federal government has spent more than $60 million in shoring up the criminal system -- additional U.S. marshals, additional FBI agents, crime labs. So we don't ignore those issues that are just -- relates to the state.
Obviously education is a local issue. The federal government has been tremendously responsible in shoring that up. As relates to the PWs, we've been directly engaged -- and I think it would be the testimony of Paul Pastorek, the State Superintendent, that without the federal government's -- without FEMA's help, the schools would not be up and going today. That was -- I attended meetings where there was obviously some -- (inaudible) -- going on as it relates to how are we going to get these temporary quarters for the schools. And so, yes, we're involved in all those fronts.
Q: What do you say to people who say that New Orleans can't and shouldn't be rebuilt?
CHAIRMAN POWELL: You know, that's an issue that -- the rebuilding of New Orleans as -- and the whole city as it relates to the planning for the future is an issue that the locals control, and they should plan their own destiny. Those people that say New Orleans should not be rebuilt -- it's important to focus on, New Orleans has been there for 300-some odd years. I think it's important for us to focus on that we should be smarter, and we should be more responsible as we go forward in the rebuilding of New Orleans. That's wise use of the taxpayers' money.
And I'm confident that the people in New Orleans understand and recognize that they want to be more responsible and be smart in how they rebuild. But I don't have to tell you about the economic importance of New Orleans and the port is to the entire nation.
Q: Earlier you mentioned some frustrations in conjunction with the $1.3 billion. I was wondering if you could talk about some other frustrations that you've had in this whole process.
CHAIRMAN POWELL: I have a sense of urgency about everything. I'm a businessperson, and that's where I've spent 38 years of my life. I'm not very tolerant of, well, we've got to wait on this, we've got to wait on that. I want to be sure that we lay aside duplication efforts, we lay aside any bureaucracy that, in fact, may not be important, and get the job done. I'm from West Texas -- "get her done" type of -- so I have certain frustrations about the pace of things. Having said that, I also see a tremendous amount of progress -- I see a tremendous amount of progress. I see economic vitality in the area. I was down there this past week. It took me about 28 minutes to get from the airport to downtown. That's called a traffic jam. You don't have a traffic jam unless there's activity.
Q: But at the same time, you're seeing very little of the population, and particularly in the poorer sections, like the Lower 9th Ward, have returned to New Orleans and have been able to rebuild. How are you addressing that?
CHAIRMAN POWELL: Orleans Parish, the population of Orleans Parish is 66 percent back. In the greater New Orleans, it's 80 percent-plus. I think that's rather remarkable for a two-year period. And the other parishes surrounding New Orleans, except St. Bernard Parish, they're at -- back to pre-Katrina within two or three percent. And sales tax revenues, all -- except St. Bernard Parish and Orleans Parish -- in Orleans Parish they're within 80 percent of what they were. So I think there's lots of economic activity. Building permits, restaurants, the port, energy, all those things are --
Q: The Lower 9th Ward is one of the most impoverished areas of the region. Many residents who lived there before felt neglected. What do you say if they today now feel that way, that, well, they're not back up to snuff, whereas everybody else is much further ahead?
CHAIRMAN POWELL: I say to those people -- and I have a sense of responsibility -- but one of the things I remember looking at is St. Bernard Parish and the 9th Ward and New Orleans East was some of the most devastated areas as it relates to the storm. If you look at those flood maps, it is dramatic in those areas how much they're improved.
So, again, that's the federal government's commitment, to making sure that it crosses the entire section of those areas. There is some activity going on in the 9th Ward. I go to the 9th Ward often. I see some people going -- that area was devastated, as was St. Bernard Parish. They're a little slower than others coming back, but it's a result of -- I mean, the devastation there was just extraordinary.
MR. STANZEL: Any other questions?
Q: Looking forward, any logjams that you see down the line that need to be addressed?
CHAIRMAN POWELL: I think we continue to work on specific issues, as we talked about. There's always going to be issues as it relates to quality of life issues. We need to make sure that we're homing in on those things. You can't rest, you can't -- you've got to be attacking the rebuilding on every front.
Q: Any specific examples there?
CHAIRMAN POWELL: Well, I think -- for instance, one of the things that we were keyed in on within the last six months -- we had, obviously, school coming up and there were 6,000 students coming back. Are we going to be ready? I mean, think about if you had had 6,000 kids, and you didn't have classrooms, or you didn't have teachers, or you didn't have administrators. Well, today -- and this was not without a lot of people working -- I get cold chills -- working very hard toward this effort. There is now -- those students are going to be in classrooms, and they will have as many as 7,000 excess seats ready for students coming in. Teachers are there; they have enough teachers, saving except some specialty areas like disabled kids. But they've got enough teachers and administrators. Schools are open -- going to be open.
Will there be some glitches after schools open? Sure, from buses to normal things -- cafeterias to whatever. But the school system is ready to accept those kids. I think that's a combination of a lot of people working toward that area. And incidentally, I think education is a bright spot, one of the bright spots in New Orleans. Half the schools are charters.
MR. STANZEL: All right, thank you all very much. Appreciate it. Any other questions?
Q: Can you just give us a sense of what we might except to hear -- the kinds of things we might expect the President to say tomorrow in his two statements?
MR. STANZEL: I think that you'll hear the President talk about the federal commitment to helping the people of the Gulf Coast rebuild. He'll talk about areas where we've had success. He'll talk about, as Chairman Powell just noted, efforts that are underway in terms of education. As you know, the President, at the beginning of March, visited a charter school. He'll be back at one tomorrow. Charter schools are providing an opportunity for increased flexibility, while having greater accountability and delivering real results for the children of the Gulf Coast, and New Orleans, in particular.
So I think you'll hear him talk about those efforts and how we can continue to focus on getting results and helping the people of the Gulf Coast rebuild their lives after such a devastating storm. The area impacted by this storm was the area the size of the United Kingdom. So it was a rather large area that was impacted and it's taking time to rebuild. But we need to continue to work with state and local partners and make sure that happens.
Q: Any new initiatives, or is he -- does he see any logjams from Congress that he needs to -- he will be prompting them to break?
MR. STANZEL: I think the President will continue to work with leaders in Congress to make sure that the funding and the resources are there. As I noted earlier, there are over $114 billion has been committed from the federal government.
Q: -- sense of urgency --
MR. STANZEL: Correct. And 84 percent of that has been disbursed or is available to the states for use. As Chairman Powell talked about the levees, in the President's 2009 budget he will request $7.5 billion for the levees.* That will take the total levee funding to $15 billion. So that's an area that we'll continue to work with Congress on. That's very important.
Q: What's the holdup for the other, whatever the difference between $114 billion and $96 billion --
MR. STANZEL: That would have been a great question to ask Chairman Powell.
Q: Is that something where you need Congress to go along? Why has that money not been --
MR. STANZEL: You know, a lot of times, in the way programs work, some things -- there are triggers put in place; they have to reach certain benchmarks. I don't know. I can check with Chairman Powell.
Q: Is that $7.5 billion new?
MR. STANZEL: Yes, yes.
Q: We haven't heard that before.
MR. STANZEL: He announced it last week.
Q: That's billion? With a "b"?
MR. STANZEL: B, with a b, as in boy. Any other questions?
MR. STANZEL: P-o-w-e-l-l.
Q: What's his title?
MR. STANZEL: His title is -- let me get the specific --Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding.
Q: Anything new on the schedule for Thursday or Friday?
MR. STANZEL: No.
Q: Thank you.
END 6:06 P.M. EDT
* To clarify, President Bush will request the federal share of the additional $7.6 billion needed from Congress in his FY 2009 budget to complete these improvements. This funding will allow the Army Corps of Engineers to complete its work to improve storm and flood protection infrastructure in Greater New Orleans to a 100-year protection level by 2011. It will also fund a $1.3 billion network of interior drainage projects to ensure the area has a more complete hurricane protection system.
George W. Bush, Press Gaggle by Scott Stanzel and Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Recovery Don Powell Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/276295