NEW ORLEANS — George W. Bush’s presidency never fully recovered after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans. How ironic that five years later, its residents have him to thank for a brighter future.
With hurricane season entering its peak, New Orleans is protected better today than at any time in its history. That’s because of Bush. His administration committed $15 billion to build a massive hurricane protection system around the perimeter of the city. It will be completed by next June, fulfilling a promise Bush made before leaving office.
Don’t expect him to get any credit, though. President Obama, who visited New Orleans on Sunday to mark the fifth anniversary of Katrina, didn’t mention Bush once in his remarks.
The city’s fortunes might be different had Bush not taken a deeply personal interest. His televised speech from Jackson Square two weeks after Katrina marked a turning point. Bush created the Office of Gulf Coast Rebuilding to coordinate the region’s recovery — an office Obama abolished earlier this year. And in 2008, Bush struck a landmark deal with Louisiana to pay back within 30 years its $1.8 billion portion of the hurricane prevention project.
“Thank you, Mr. President,” the Times-Picayune wrote after Bush granted the executive order.
Today there is growing confidence among residents about the new system being built to shield the city from a hurricane. According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 74 percent of respondents were upbeat and 70 percent said the recovery was heading in the right direction. Louisianans also give Bush higher marks for his response to Katrina than Obama’s handling of the Gulf oil spill — by a margin of 54 percent to 33 percent, according to Public Policy Polling.
It helped that New Orleans remained dry after Hurricane Gustav hit in 2008. Now, two years after that storm, the system is even more robust. When construction and reinforcement of levees, floodwalls and pump stations are done next June, the Greater New Orleans area will have the best perimeter defense in its history.
Karen Durham-Aguilera, the civilian director of the Corps’ Task Force Hope, says the project’s full, upfront funding eliminated costly turf wars and bureaucratic holdups.
“We’re not even on the same universe as we were before Katrina,” Durham-Aguilera said of the threat posed by a hurricane. “There’s just no comparison. That’s why even during Gustav, when it was only partially complete, it held up. If we get hit this year — and we very well could — we’re better off than a year ago.”
Because the funding was secured all at once — through an emergency appropriations bill in August 2007 — the Corps has been able to speed up the pace of construction. It has also saved money — an estimated $50 million on steel alone because of a bulk purchase.
As many as 5,000 people have worked with the Army Corps of Engineers on the project. Community input has been vital. With lingering concerns about past failures, the Corps wanted to make sure the new system not only kept the water at bay, but also restored the confidence of residents.
“Everything we do is based on sound science and engineering,” she said. “There is a huge group of people involved. We don’t do anything without doing that rigor. It’s not based on whether someone likes it or doesn’t like it, some political agenda, or a short-term benefit that ignores the long-term consequences. That’s what got us into trouble before.”
When the work of Task Force Hope is done next summer — just in time for hurricane season — New Orleans will be safer. At his Xavier University speech on Sunday, Obama claimed credit for the accomplishment that Bush rightfully deserved.
“Just as I pledged as a candidate,” Obama said, “we’re going to finish this system by next year so that this city is protected against a 100-year storm.”
Obama might have made the pledge, but Bush made it happen.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the level of future hurricane protection compared to Katrina.
Rob Bluey directs the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation.