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Bush remembers Katrina victims

india Updated: Aug 30, 2006 02:06 IST
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US President George W. Bush on Tuesday mourned Hurricane Katrina's victims and vowed to do right by its survivors, one year after the killer storm devastated New Orleans, appalled the world, and forever scarred his presidency.

Bush took "full responsibility" in a speech here for Washington's botched response to the disaster, promised "we're addressing what went wrong" and predicted that this festive city would someday be "louder, brasher and better."

"This anniversary is not an end. And so I've come back to say that we will stand with the people of southern Louisiana and southern Mississippi until the job is done," he said at a school still under repair but ready for students.

He also pleaded with those who have yet to return to New Orleans, saying: "The people of this city have a responsibility as well. I know you love New Orleans. And New Orleans needs you. She needs people coming home."

Bush also painted a bleak picture of the aftermath of Katrina, which left about 1,500 dead and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes, and of the challenges still facing the US Gulf Coast and New Orleans in particular.

Katrina "brought terrible scenes that we never thought we would see in America: Citizens drowned in their attics; desperate mothers crying out on national TV for food and water; the breakdown of law and order; and a government, at all levels, that fell short of its responsibilities."

"I take full responsibility for the federal government's response," said Bush, who has drawn fierce criticism over the past two years for his handling of the storm and for waiting days to make his first post-Katrina visit here.

The president, who ran for office in 2000 as a "compassionate conservative" eager to tackle social ills like poverty and lacklustre education, acknowledged that the city faced huge obstacles such as violent crime and a lack of basic services such as hospitals and supermarkets.

The city known as the Big Easy sidestepped the worst of Katrina's winds when the hurricane ravaged the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005.

But the violent storm surge smashed levees and rushing floods swallowed 80 percent of the city, reaching depths of six meters (20 feet) in some areas. The bulk of the storm's more than 1,500 deaths were in those flooded neighbourhoods.

Bush's approval ratings, already suffering under the weight of the unpopular war in Iraq and worries about the economy, sank further after the widely criticized government response to Katrina, and have struggled to recover.

White House officials have sought to counter criticisms of the reconstruction effort, saying that Washington appropriated 110 billion dollars and it's up to state and local governments to decide how best to spend it. Just 44 billion dollars have been spent thus far.

"The federal government cannot do this job alone, nor should it be expected to do the job alone. This is your home. You know what needs to be done," said Bush, who was bound for his Texas ranch later in the day.

Before attending a somber memorial service at Saint Louis Cathedral, Bush took his motorcade down Canal Street, still blighted by boarded-up storefronts and shattered windows, to Betsy's House of Pancakes.

As he squeezed past tables, waitress Joyce Labruzzo jokingly asked him: "Mister President, are you going to turn your back on me?"

"No, ma'am," Bush said, with a laugh and a pause. "Not again."

After breakfast with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Lieutenant General Russel Honore, the head of military operations in response to Katrina, Bush headed to the cathedral to remember the victims of the devastating storm.

With Bush and First Lady Laura Bush in the front pew, Honore read from the Book of Lamentations, intoning "I have forgotten what happiness is" and a verse about "homeless poverty" in a reading that ends with a celebration of faith.

At 1438 GMT, the president and his wife knelt for a moment of silence at the precise moment when, one year ago, the levees gave way and the city flooded.

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