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On Eve Of Katrina Anniversary, Bush Takes A Tour Of New Orleans 10 Years On


Former President George W. Bush was back in New Orleans today as the city commemorates 10 years since Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failure that flooded the city. Mr. Bush was widely criticized right after the storm for this praise of his FEMA chief, Michael Brown, while much of New Orleans remained underwater.


GEORGE W BUSH: And Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. The FEMA director's working 24...

CORNISH: But today local officials welcomed the former president as he visited a school that was heavily damaged in the flood. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The word help is still painted on the metal roof of Warren Easton High, a reminder of the desperation here 10 years ago. Louisiana's oldest public school was under five feet of flood water and more was coming through the wind-damaged roof. The damage was so bad that local officials were going to close it. But alumni, students and faculty fought back, raising private funds to rebuild as a charter school. Today, Warren Easton boasts a 100 percent graduation rate for the past five years.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Dos mas cuatro son what?

ELLIOTT: Students in this sophomore Spanish class were learning their numbers when former President Bush stopped in today.

BUSH: Hola!


BUSH: Como estan?

ELLIOTT: After displaying his Spanish language skills, Bush recalled first visiting the school before it reopened.

BUSH: You weren't here the last time we were here. That was nine years ago.

ELLIOTT: These students would've been about 6 years old at the time. Back then Bush made a speech promising reforms in the way his administration had handled the disaster. His speech today focused on reforms in public education, calling New Orleans a beacon for the rest of the country. He says the people who worked to reopen Warren Easton understood that getting back to life meant getting students back to school.


BUSH: Today we celebrate the resurgence of New Orleans' schools. We honor the resilience of a great American city whose levees gave out but whose people never gave up.

ELLIOTT: President Bush didn't take any questions from the media. Earlier this week at a forum, Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg asked New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu about the timing of the visit.


JEFFREY GOLDBERG: Tell us about one president in particular who's coming on Friday.

MITCH LANDRIEU: Yeah, President Bush.


GOLDBERG: How did that come about?

LANDRIEU: I invited him.

ELLIOTT: Landrieu, a Democrat, said it's time for reconciliation.


LANDRIEU: Everybody knows that the initial federal response was slow and it was inadequate. It took time to get our legs underneath us. We've gone through a couple of different mayors. We've gone through a couple of different governors. After the initial hiccup, we actually had to work together very closely over a couple of years' period of time.

ELLIOTT: It's important to be gracious, he said. But some New Orleanians aren't feeling so hospitable.

ELAINE KNATT: He doesn't need to show his face.

ELLIOTT: Elaine Knatt was surprised that he was part of this week's commemorative events.

KNATT: I said when he was president and Katrina hit, it took him several days to come. And then when he did come, he flew overhead and took a look at the city. But he and his FEMA crew weren't worth anything.

ELLIOTT: Aaron Grant stood outside Warren Easton High School with a sign depicting President Bush looking out the window of Air Force One. It said, you're early - come back in a week.

AARON GRANT: He didn't come here. He didn't say hang on, help is on the way, even though this was three days later. And the catastrophe continued to unfold after that. We were all witnesses to it. I don't need to describe what happened during Hurricane Katrina, but yes, I do hold George Bush culpable.

ELLIOTT: Mr. Bush later wrote in his book that his decision to fly over the scene was a serious mistake that suggested he was detached from the suffering on the ground. That was not how I felt, he wrote.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South and occasionally guest-hosting NPR news programs. She covers the latest news and politics and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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