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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
April 21, 2008
Press Gaggle by Dana Perino and Paul Conway, Chief of Staff to Gulf Coast Coordinator
Aboard Air Force One
En Route New Orleans, Louisiana
10:37 A.M. EDT
MS. PERINO: Hi. I have with me a special guest while we are on our way to New Orleans. Paul Conway is the Chief of Staff to the Gulf Coast Coordinator, who the President just announced on Friday is General O'Dell. He is on flight -- General O'Dell is also on flight with us.
Let me give you a quick update on the schedule, and I'm going to turn it over to him for brief opening comments and a few questions about the reconstruction efforts in New Orleans. Remember last Friday, Dan Fisk joined Tony Fratto at the gaggle and gave you a good preview I think of the meetings that the President is going to start having today for the Security and Prosperity Partnership -- the North American Leaders' Summit.
At 12:45 p.m. the President will make remarks in honor of the opening of the Mexican Consulate. That is open to you all. At 1:55 p.m., the President will meet with the President of Mexico at the Windsor Court Hotel -- pool at the bottom -- and then goes into a meeting with the Prime Minister of Canada for a second bilateral at the Windsor Court Hotel -- again, pool at the bottom. And then he will remarks at the United States Chamber of Commerce reception; pool for cameras and open for correspondents. And then he will have dinner with the President of Mexico and the Prime Minister of Canada.
One statement -- I'm sorry, one scheduling update: President Bush will meet with His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan at the White House on Wednesday, April 23rd. The President looks forward to discussing with the King bilateral U.S.-Jordanian relations, efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the situation in Lebanon and other regional issues.
So let me turn it over to Paul and then I'll clean up -- any cleanup at the end.
MR. CONWAY: Good morning. How are you?
Q Good morning.
MR. CONWAY: Paul Conway. Nice to meet you.
MR. CONWAY: A couple of different things. I think as we go down to New Orleans, some of you folks may not have been down there since maybe last August or so, and one of the most important things in the story of New Orleans that you'll see on the ground, and I'd encourage you to talk to local leaders, is the initiative that local leaders have taken to really push their city forward. The coverage that you'll see over the next couple of days for the city of New Orleans and for this event that you're going down to is really strong among the business community, among civic activists. They are willing to tell their story, they're anxious to tell their story about how they're driving change, driving reform, and are the engines beyond the recovery effort. This is both the elected community, elected officials, but most importantly, are non-profit leaders and the business leaders.
Some of the things that you'll see down there on the ground -- you have more restaurants open in New Orleans now than you did before the storm. Schools -- for the schools that are reopening -- schools are open for business. You have enough schools open down there now, commensurate with the population that has returned. You have a tremendous effort going between the school administrators and FEMA for the rebuilding effort and for the flow of money.
Mrs. Bush has been down several different times and has worked through her foundation to make certain that school libraries have books. In the past month alone, she's given half a million dollars through the foundation -- or the foundation has given that money to put books in the schools down there. And you see a lot of other organizations doing the same type of thing.
The convention activity down there is about 80 percent of what it had been pre-Katrina. The tourist rate is about 75 percent of what it had been. Port activity is the same on cargo containers as it had been. There's a small drop in break-bulk cargo as -- an indication of steel imports being down throughout the region.
Several other indicators that you have going on -- on crime. Violent crime is an issue, absolutely. Any loss of life is significant. But what you see down there, which is fairly unusual, is a huge groundswell by grassroots activists and business leaders demanding accountability of local officials and becoming directly involved in courtrooms, coming in and monitoring judges, sentencing, turnaround times, supporting the local police; an effort with federal, state and local law enforcement driven really in part by Jim Letten, the U.S. attorney down there, to make certain there's coordination of information, and coordination at the federal level of resources, such as DEA, FBI, information sharing and that type of thing.
You also see a great demand for accountability of public funds coming not just from elected officials, but from business leaders and others who want to make certain that a message of a new era of business in New Orleans is here. What you see are folks demanding that a city inspector general, who is newly created and newly funded, take a more aggressive role. That city inspector general is similar to the federal inspector general efforts that are underway down there to make certain that federal tax dollars are being used wisely.
You also see a new Governor, Governor Jindal, who is very aggressive on his use of the auditor, and encouragement of state legislative auditor, taking a look at different things. And so in that spirit down there, folks are interested in changing past perceptions of New Orleans, expressing their appreciation to the American taxpayer, expressing appreciation to the international visitors that are bringing revenue this week, but really trying to send a message of, "if it's going to be, it's up to me."
And you see this all across different levels of New Orleans, where before, citizens had not really been that actively involved, a cross-section of the community, you see that much more now in every sector: crime, criminal justice, education -- all these different types of things, and the schools. It's a great story. It's a story that they would like to tell you.
As the Federal Coordinator's Office, part of our job is to make certain that locals who have needs know where to access the federal dollars, and how that interacts with the state, but I have to tell you, one of the things that they really ask us for is to keep putting them forward so they can tell their story. And I would encourage you folks to talk to as many local leaders as you can who will be at these different events. They all have different takes on things, but one thing that you'll come away with is a story of hope, opportunity, and tough persistence to get things done.
Q What are the key challenges that remain in the rebuilding effort?
MR. CONWAY: Key challenges going forward are on the levee construction. The President firmly committed to 2011 -- 100-year hurricane protection by 2011. He hardwired that money as emergency funding into his 2009 budget. To keep that on track, one of the challenges will be to make certain that the state and the Corps of Engineers work closely together. Probably the most significant development in this occurred on April 3rd, where you had the state and the Corps of Engineers signing the most historic and largest design-build agreement in the Corps' history -- a huge project, $700 million. It really does kick-start the 2011 deadline -- or objective for getting that done.
That's one, is keeping the levees on track. The second issue is public assistance. This is the flow of FEMA dollars to the state and down into the localities to make certain that infrastructure, critical infrastructure is rebuilt. In the past six months alone, FEMA funding has been flowing in there at a rate of $1.6 billion. But the most significant thing that will be the challenge in this is making certain that local officials and the state and the feds are working together on what are the core priorities -- police and fire, sewer, and other infrastructure needs.
What you're seeing is an agency at FEMA that is revitalized, has a new sense of purpose, and is absolutely dedicated to making certain that they are working closely with the city and the state on issues like police and fire and the schools. The reason why this is an issue is because if you don't have police and fire or crime being addressed, that impacts your insurance and the desire for people to return. Same on the schools -- people want to return to New Orleans, there's no doubt about that, they want their kids to go to school, so keeping the funding flowing is important.
The other challenge that we would see -- and this is one that the General feels quite strongly about -- is making certain that the nation understands that dollars are, in fact, flowing and work is actually beginning. It has been underway for some time. Much of the things that you see on the ground there in terms of what has been done so far is infrastructure, critical infrastructure. So a lot of these things are below the ground. A lot of these things are in massive planning processes, where the city and stakeholders and the state have to work together to sort out what the plans are, design what -- the specs, let the contracts go through the bid process, go through the challenge process, all that type of thing.
But as you look down there, you'll start to see things moving along quite rapidly. That is the General's charge as he comes in. He absolutely wants to make certain that the federal money that has been authorized -- $120 billion -- that that money which is authorized is further obligated, because you have about $90 billion that's obligated, and that it -- more is expended. So the $120 billion -- 82 percent has been obligated, and 64 percent has been expended.
Q Eighty-two, 64 -- is that --
MR. CONWAY: Eighty-two, 64, yes. So for us, as a federal office, part of our job is driving the dollars down and making certain they actually get in the hands of the folks who are doing the planning, doing the contracts, that type of thing. I'd say those are probably the top three challenges. There are many others, but go ahead and ask if you have more specific sectors.
Q I just had one follow-up on that. You are familiar with the President's itinerary over the next two days, I'm sure. Is he going to be seeing any neighborhoods or downtown areas that were hit hard by the hurricane? What will he be seeing?
MS. PERINO: I think I answered that question for you yesterday, which is that one of the reasons that the President wanted to come to New Orleans is to show everybody by his coming here that New Orleans is now back in a position that it can host a meeting with three world leaders at their annual summit. So he'll be meeting with community leaders. I think there's going to be some schoolchildren that will be at the airport. But it will not be a visit where he's going to tour a lot of the damage.
Q I didn't know if the downtown area -- wind damage and so forth -- maybe there were some things that the section he's in that they have been recovering from that maybe wouldn't be obvious to us who don't live there.
MR. CONWAY: I could tell you this. If you go downtown you'll still see some parts that are damaged, and no one is trying to hide that fact. Part of this is tied into the city's master plan, where they're sitting down with community associations and everybody else targeting what are the priorities.
As far the President's activity, probably the most important use of his time while he's down here with the community is actually having these sit-down discussions with community leaders. They are very passionate and very opinionated about what's going on, and they will express that to him. And he has asked for that feedback. He has actively asked for that feedback for the past two years, and he's gotten that directly and also through Chairman Powell. Chairman Powell would be down here all the time, walking the streets. The General is going to be the same way; absolutely dedicated to it.
These community leaders -- and I would encourage you to go out and find them and talk to them, who are participating in these events -- it's a mix of opinion, it's a mix of political affiliation, it's a mix of background. It is a fantastic story. Please do them the service of talking to them.
MS. PERINO: Thanks, Paul.
Any other topics?
Q Israel, and Hamas's reported willingness to engage in a peace deal. Do you have any reaction on that?
MS. PERINO: Well, I think that -- you're referring to what President Carter said about what he was told? I think that what you have to do is look at -- it's possible that that was whispered in his ear in a private meeting. We did not support the private meeting, a meeting with a terrorist organization.
And I think you have to look at the public comments of Hamas, and beyond that, look at the behavior, and just look at what happened over the weekend in terms of the very sophisticated attacks around the border crossings, and the people -- innocent people, who were killed right there. So I take it with a -- we take it with a grain of salt. And we have to look at public comments, and we also have to look at actions. And actions speak louder than words.
Q I had a logistical question. Are you planning to do any readouts after these bilats?
MS. PERINO: I will see what I can do, timing-wise. I'll probably be able to do a little bit of something, yes.
MS. PERINO: I'll find you.
Q That would be helpful.
Q Another topic. In Nigeria apparently the rebels in the Niger Delta are asking for the U.S. to get involved and mediate this dispute. Are you looking at doing that?
MS. PERINO: That's the first I've heard of it. I'll refer you to the State Department. They can answer that for you.
Q Dana, the dinner tonight, is that at a restaurant in town, or is it --
MS. PERINO: Yes.
Q Are we showcasing a New Orleans restaurant, is what I'm getting at.
MS. PERINO: It's a to-be-announced restaurant, so it will be a restaurant.
Q Dana, is there any sense -- back on Israel, for a second -- that Hamas -- whatever they said to Carter was meant as a sign ahead of the Abbas meeting on Thursday, trying to warm up the waters a little bit, or --
MS. PERINO: I have not heard it put that way. I don't think we will take it that way. I'll take your question back and see, but I really doubt it.
END 10:50 A.M. EDT