The White House, President George W. Bush Click to print this document

For Immediate Release
March 1, 2007

Press Gaggle by Dana Perino
Aboard Air Force One
En route Mississippi

8:42 A.M. EST

MS. PERINO: Good morning. We are on our way to the Gulf Coast for the President's 14th trip to the Gulf Coast region.

Q Fourteen?

MS. PERINO: Fourteen, yes. We're first going to Mississippi and then to New Orleans. I have Don Powell here, the President's Federal Gulf Coast Coordinator, who will set up the trip for you and then answer a few questions. And I'll come in at the end if you have other topics.

MR. POWELL: Good morning. As Dana indicated, this is the President's 14th trip, and I think, again, as evidence of his long-term commitment to rebuild the Gulf Coast area. In that regard, I think there's been lots of progress since the last -- over the last 18 months. Children are in school; "help wanted" signs are up; the port is 100 percent back; restaurants are open; hotels are open; building permits have increased; self -- (inaudible) -- revenue is, in some cases, at record highs. So there's been lots of progress.

Is there more work to be done? Absolutely. And that's the reason we're involved in all issues of life from education to health care to criminal justice. So the President will see firsthand some of the progress and some of the work that yet may need to be done.

Q I read an editorial in the paper today, read an editorial in the Post today that said the recovery has been painfully slow and that more than half of the schools remain closed. Another report said tens of thousands of people remain displaced. Is that true, and does that worry you?

MR. POWELL: Well, we all have a sense of urgency about the recovery; we want it to be -- but I think it's important to look and put it in perspective about the size of the storm and how overwhelming this storm was. So I think there's been some good progress. As I mentioned, 53 schools are open. There's 28,000 kids in school. They're there. By some of their own testimony, the schools are better than they were before Katrina. I've heard that from teachers, from administrators.

Is there work yet to be done in the schools? Absolutely. Do they need to get it better? Do we need to continue to open more schools and plan for that? But the students that are there now, they have classrooms. The seats are available to the students. There needs to be more recruitment for the fall of teachers, and we're working on those issues.

We work very closely with educators of the recovery school district, the New Orleans school district, but those 53 schools, 60 percent of our charter schools -- and there's lots of good things happening in education. Incidentally, all the higher-education institutions are open. They're open.

Q Are these schools in New Orleans or in the local region?

MR. POWELL: New Orleans parish, yes. New Orleans parish. That's the recovery school district and the New Orleans independent school district.

Q Where you are running into trouble, sir, what are the biggest obstacles? What are you finding are the real trouble spots?

MR. POWELL: Well, our office, we focus on lots of issues. I think affordable housing is an issue, and so that's the reason we spend lots of time working with the state and the local people, making sure that the federal government is not an impediment to getting the Governors' Road Home program into the hands of the recipient. We spend a lot of time on that.

That's a program that the state owns and it's a program that they in -- contractually obligated with the contractor to execute and implement that program. But we make sure that the federal government is not an impediment in that. So we need to get the money into the hands of those people so they can begin to start rebuilding their lives.

The second thing we focus on a lot is the so-called project worksheets, the infrastructure, the money that FEMA gives to the state, the state then gives to the local people to make -- to rebuild their infrastructure. Seventy-one percent -- 71 percent of the projected money that the federal government has allocated to that has been placed in the hands of the state -- 71 percent. The state has only passed down about 45 percent of that money to the local parishes.

So we work to make sure that we do three things there: We make sure that, again, we're not an impediment; is there any red tape in regard to that. Since the anniversary that process has increased something like almost 30 percent. So there's been lots of movement toward that.

FEMA has done lots of things as relates to that. They've looked at policies, they've looked at personnel, they've looked at models to make sure that they're up to speed. So there's -- I'm encouraged about some of that movement being done.

The criminal justice, a thing that we all are concerned about, it's my opinion that all of the project worksheets will be completed as in relation to the federal government within the next 45 days. That's huge.

Q What are the downward figures that correspond to total allocation, the amounts you've given the states --

MR. POWELL: The dollars in the state of Louisiana is about $6.3 billion; 71 percent of that, about $4.5 billion, has been placed in the coffers of the state. So they have that money to spend. In turn, 45 percent of that money has been obligated to the parishes.

Q What is $6.3 billion?

MR. POWELL: The $6.3 billion is the estimated total amount of dollars.

Q From the federal government to the state?

MR. POWELL: To the state for infrastructure.

Q What about the $110 billion --

MR. POWELL: The $110 billion, as you know, it's $83 billion* in total has been obligated, and spent is about $53 billion. Incidentally, since the anniversary, that's increased by $6 billion to $7 billion.

Q What is the difference between $53 billion -- what's the difference?

MR. POWELL: The $83 billion* is -- you've got $110 billion; $83 billion* is what's been obligated, and $53 billion is what's been spent.

Q Thank you.

Q I'm not sure if I'm hearing you correctly. Could you run through the numbers again? It's just very loud.

MR. POWELL: Yes -- $110 billion; $83 billion* has been obligated, and about $53 billion has been spent.

Q What is it going to take to get the rest of the money to filter down to who needs it?

MR. POWELL: The plans have to be submitted. The work has to be done for that money to flow. I always say, it's just like me remodeling my house. I get the commitment from the bank, but then I have to do the work and spend the draw request for the money to be advanced to me to pay my suppliers.

Q But the $83 billion dollars* is there for them to spend?

MR. POWELL: Right, right. All they have to do is --

Q It's available to them to draw down --

MR. POWELL: -- is do the work. That's right.

Q And $53 billion has been spent. Now, is it -- do the states need to do more in order to get to that?

MR. POWELL: I'm sorry?

Q Do the states need to do more in order to get to that?

MR. POWELL: Well, the process needs to -- they need to complete the work that they've agreed to do.

Q Can you tell us just a little bit about the first town we're going to, Long Beach?

MR. POWELL: We're going to Biloxi and Gulfport, aren't we?

Q Long Beach and then Biloxi. I'm just curious what the storm's impact was on Long Beach, what basically --

MR. POWELL: It was huge. It was huge. It just -- Bay Saint Louis, Long Beach, all those areas were wiped out, sort of like a tornado. I'm from West Texas -- it was just wiped clean -- versus, like in New Orleans, where you had a city under water. So they had to -- it's hard to describe how they were devastated. That whole Gulf Coast area, from Ocean Springs and Pascagoula all the way over to Bay Saint Louis. It was huge.

Q Why are charter schools particularly appropriated in redevelopment?

MR. POWELL: That's a decision of the locals. That's a decision of the local people. They made that decision they wanted charter schools.

Q How long is it going to take for the area to recover?

MR. POWELL: You know, it's -- I don't think -- I can remember the first week we were in our office, we looked for a book, a manual. We've never seen anything like this. So it is -- it's hard to put time lines on issues. I just know that the President continues to be committed over the long haul to make sure that the Gulf Coast is done. We're doing everything we can to speed that process. We all have a sense of urgency. But it's important to focus about how large this catastrophic event was.

Q Is the federal end of this -- are you guys doing all you can do? Is that your feeling? Is there anything you can do to get money into the hands of the people who are frustrated that their house is still in shambles, or whatever, more quickly?

MR. POWELL: I ask that question myself all the time. That's a constant question that I'm always asking. At the same time, are we being responsible to the taxpayers? Are we doing everything we can to make sure that we're giving the resources

-- the necessary resources to rebuild the Gulf Coast? And with the leadership of this President, and obviously, Congress, the American taxpayers have poured a lot of money into that area. It's important that the locals -- that the local people began to push and process that money and clothes and put it in the appropriate hands of people.


MR. POWELL: Okay. Thank you.

MS. PERINO: Anything else?

Q Have you checked into this North Korea story, what -- exactly what our intelligence says about the North Korean uranium enrichment program?

MS. PERINO: I did try to check into it. I think what I need to do is refer you to the intelligence community. We've said for a long time, North Korea is an opaque regime. I'm sure the intelligence community continually tried to assess and reassess and look at the information that they have. What we do know is that North Korea tested a nuclear weapon. And we have the six-party process that's underway with the agreement that was announced just last week, or the week before. And now that process is moving forward, based on the September 19th agreement, and there's working groups, and the IAEA inspectors are going back into North Korea.

So from our standpoint, that's what we know is happening at the moment. In regards to intel and what they knew and when they knew it, I think I'd have to refer you back to them.

Okay, thank you.

Q Thank you.

END 8:53 A.M. EST

* American taxpayers have committed more than $110 billion to rebuild the Gulf Coast. Of that amount, $85.6 billion has been obligated and $53.1 billion has been spent.

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