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Monday, September 12, 2005

President Visits as New Orleans Sees Some Gains - New York Times

President Visits as New Orleans Sees Some Gains - New York TimesSeptember 12, 2005
President Visits as New Orleans Sees Some Gains

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 11 - President Bush arrived here Sunday night for his second visit in a week as this stricken city continued its determined struggle to recover from Hurricane Katrina. The airport announced plans to resume some commercial flights on Tuesday, officials said a container terminal at the port would reopen Wednesday, and floodwaters have slowly receded, speeding recovery but also exposing the breadth of the devastation.

Mr. Bush, whose administration has come under bipartisan criticism for its slow response to Hurricane Katrina, made his third visit to the region on the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a moment that the president often says defined his presidency.

In sharp contrast to his previous trip, in which Mr. Bush seemed intent on reassuring the public about the government's role and the commitment to rebuild New Orleans and other coastal communities, the White House portrayed this trip as more akin to a general's heading to the front lines for inspection.

On Monday, Mr. Bush is to be briefed about the recovery effort onboard the Iwo Jima, an amphibious assault ship in the Mississippi River on the edge of the city's downtown, where ghostly office buildings loom over a crowded, noisy street scene of relief works, soldiers and trucks. The president is then scheduled to tour New Orleans in a military convoy, take an aerial tour and meet with local officials.

Hopeful signs and sobering reminders came in about equal number on Sunday, as has been the pattern of many recent days.

Officials announced that they planned to resume commercial flights into and out of Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport on Tuesday, a critical precursor to any reconstruction effort.

The airport formally reopened for cargo traffic on Sunday. By Tuesday, the airport hopes to have 30 daily departures and arrivals of passenger flights - down from 174 before the storm - and 60 each day by the end of October.

The Port of New Orleans planned to reopen its container terminal on Wednesday. The port has 12 damaged wharfs and one wharf that is inaccessible because of flooding.

And at the 17th Street Canal, where the eastern levee wall partly collapsed after the storm, flooding most of the city, heavy equipment rolled across the concrete and stone that sealed the sandbags temporarily plugging the 300-foot breach. Six of the 15 pumps at Pumping Station No. 6, which is at the canal and is one of the city's largest pumps, were working on Sunday.

"They're cranking away," Col. Terry J. Ebbert, the city's head of homeland security, said as he flew over the area Sunday in a Blackhawk helicopter. As he looked past the station and across acres of brown water whose stench rose through the helicopter doors, Colonel Ebbert added, "But you can see why it's going to take a long time."

Disaster relief officials said the falling water level was revealing what the deep flood had hidden: that places like the Ninth Ward, near the levees that held back Lake Pontchartrain, were not simply inundated but largely destroyed.

"There's nothing out there that can be saved at all," Colonel Ebbert said as he surveyed a section of the Lower Ninth Ward from the helicopter.

Mr. Bush first surveyed the damage to New Orleans on Aug. 31, when he flew over the city in Air Force One as he returned to Washington from his vacation in Crawford, Tex. Two days later, he made his first ground visit, meeting with the governor and the mayor and stopping at the 17th Street Canal breach.

Before leaving Washington on Sunday, Mr. Bush participated in a moment of silence on the South Lawn of the White House at 8:46 a.m., the moment that the first plane hit the twin towers on Sept. 11. Then he and his wife, Laura, returned to the White House, holding hands, and Mr. Bush said nothing when he reappeared a little after 3 p.m. to board his helicopter for the journey to Louisiana.

Upon arriving in New Orleans, the president was welcomed by Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who accompanied him aboard a helicopter to the Iwo Jima, which is docked in front of the convention center that became a squalid shelter for thousands of evacuees in the first several days after the storm hit. Aboard the ship, Mr. Bush was greeted by Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, who only days ago replaced the FEMA director as commander of the New Orleans relief efforts, and Lt. Gen. Russel Honore of the Army, who is in charge of military relief efforts along the Gulf Coast.

About an hour after he arrived in the city, Mr. Bush visited the Algiers neighborhood, across the river from the French Quarter, and a tent city set up by firefighters from across the country - including 353 members of the New York City Fire Department - on the campus of Our Lady of Holy Cross College.

The prospect of resumed air travel to New Orleans is likely to be a psychological boost to a city that feels cut off from the rest of the world.

Roy A. Williams, the airport's director, said in an interview on Friday that he had hoped to resume civil flights by Sept. 19. But on Sunday, at a news conference in Baton Rouge, he said the airlines and cargo carriers, as well as the local authorities, had all urged him to reopen the airport sooner.

"Initially we expect more inbound customers than outbound as people come back in and participate in disaster recovery," Mr. Williams said.

Continental, Delta and Northwest Airlines have committed to operate flights on Tuesday, but the three carriers told the airport that they would not have their schedules completed and publicly available until Monday.

The airport, which is run by the New Orleans Aviation Board, a nine-member municipal panel, was the conduit for 80 percent of passenger and air cargo traffic in Louisiana before the storm. In the past two weeks, officials worried that it would be eclipsed by Baton Rouge Municipal Airport, as relief workers, government officials and government workers poured into the state capital.

The New Orleans airport has been transformed over the past two weeks, and Mr. Williams said the terminal would have to be configured to accept passengers again. Some of the food and retail shops will reopen, and the baggage conveyor belts will start moving again.

New Orleans remains under a virtual lockdown, with checkpoints at the entrances into the city. The police officers, sheriff's deputies, soldiers and airmen who guard the checkpoints have largely restricted access except to members of government agencies, relief organizations and the members of the news media. Mr. Williams made it clear that most New Orleans residents might not be allowed to go from the airport into the city.

Even as New Orleans showed signs of recovery, Louisiana state officials offered new criticism of the federal government's response to the disaster, saying the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been slow to move more than 50,000 evacuees living in shelters to longer-term and more comfortable housing arrangements.

"We have a real concern right now with the assistance we're getting from FEMA on temporary housing," said P. Jeffrey Smith, a deputy director of the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. "We do not feel this process is moving fast enough."

Mr. Smith, a retired Army colonel, noted that in Houston, evacuees had begun moving into temporary apartments and long-term trailers. In Louisiana, 58,187 displaced residents were still living in 296 emergency shelters across the state on Sunday.

FEMA announced Sunday that it had moved 10 families into trailers in Patterson, La., about 60 miles west of New Orleans. They are the first storm evacuees in the state to receive temporary housing provided by the agency.

David Passey, a FEMA spokesman, said he understood the criticisms about the delay in finding temporary housing for evacuees in Louisiana. "We can start moving units in, but in order for people to operate them we have to secure a site that has the appropriate infrastructure that has electricity, water and wastewater services," he said.

At least 700 more housing units, in New Orleans and Slidell, east of Lake Pontchartrain, are also expected to arrive. But they are restricted for use by public employees and other workers responding to the hurricane.

A cruise ship is expected to dock at the Mississippi River on Monday, FEMA officials said. The ship, which can accommodate 1,800 people, will be used to house city workers and their families. At least one more cruise ship is expected; it will also be reserved for recovery workers.

Elsewhere in the region, officials continued working on the spillover effects on other communities of those tens of thousands of evacuees.

In Baton Rouge, where thousands of families and employers from New Orleans have regrouped, engineers worked over the weekend to improve the timing and coordination of traffic signals on critical corridors where traffic has slowed to a crawl during the weekday commuter rush.

Starting Monday, they said, tow trucks will be available 16 hours a day on Interstate 12 to remove disabled vehicles from the highway.

In downtown New Orleans on Sunday, there was some stirring of business life, though it appeared that no businesses were open.

Workers at the Doubletree Hotel on the edge of the French Quarter were sweeping the front entrance, instead of picking up debris or wreckage. Other parts of the city seemed caught somewhere between disaster and recovery. At the Riverwalk, a complex of stores on the Mississippi just a few blocks from where Mr. Bush's helicopter landed, some electricity had been restored.

And at least one holdout city resident has landed a job cleaning up. Tyrone Randall said he earns just over $10 an hour helping clean up the convention center. He eats free at the relief worker areas, he said, then pedals his bicycle home, a mile across town, where there is no electricity and no running water fit for drinking.

"It's the way I can stay here and help the country build back up," he said Sunday afternoon.

Contaminated water remains a health concern. An Air National Guard unit will begin spraying a pesticide over New Orleans on Monday evening, in an attempt to prevent an outbreak of West Nile virus and other mosquito-borne illnesses.

While the chemical agent that will be used, naled, is believed to be harmless to humans, officials acknowledged that it was unusual to spray a pesticide directly over an urban center. Several thousand residents are believed to remain in New Orleans.

The spraying was ordered only with the approval of Dr. Frederick P. Cerise, the Louisiana secretary of health and hospitals, and Dr. Kevin U. Stephens Sr., the director of public health for New Orleans, said the top United States Public Health Service official overseeing disaster response in Louisiana, Rear Adm. W. Craig Vanderwagen.

Sgt. Shawn David McCowan, a spokesman for the 910th Airlift Wing, a unit based in Vienna, Ohio, that will be spraying the pesticide, said people in New Orleans who come into contact with the spray would only notice a harmless blue dye on their clothing or bodies. The dye is sprayed with the pesticide to allow the pilots to see what areas they have covered. The pesticide is commonly used in southern Louisiana.

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