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Will Bush Keep Pledge to Rebuild Bridge?

August 06, 2007

For New Orleans residents, the scene was all too familiar: President Bush, touring the site of the collapsed I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, promising to cut red tape and rebuild as quickly as possible.

Nearly two years ago, with parts of New Orleans still under water after Hurricane Katrina, Bush made similar declarations in the French Quarter. The president's promise was all Melanie Thompson needed to hear to bring back her family of five and begin work on their flooded home.

But today Thompson's family is still living in a cramped trailer and awaiting aid to rebuild. Her hope and faith in government have faded and she worries for the people of Minneapolis.

"I just hope to God they come to their rescue a lot quicker than they did ours," she said.

The scope of the two disasters is far different. Katrina killed more than 1,400 in Louisiana, and the storm and catastrophic failure of levees submerged most of New Orleans. Some neighborhoods remain in ruins.

By contrast, last week's bridge collapse caused just five confirmed deaths and injured about 100. And most commuters were still able to get to work smoothly without using the freeway closed by the accident.

In both cases, Bush promised swift federal action. In Minneapolis, the president gave no timeline for rebuilding the bridge but said he would work to cut the bureaucratic red tape that could delay the project.

In his French Quarter speech, Bush said the government would "stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives."

New Orleans City Councilwoman Shelley Midura recalled that Bush made all the same promises after the 2005 hurricane. "I'm sorry, it takes more than a simple sentence," she said.

The federal government has provided more than $116 billion to the Gulf Coast in the form of grants, loans and other aid. But much of that was for emergency needs or short-term projects such as debris removal, levee work and housing assistance.

Major reconstruction work has yet to begin in New Orleans, and city officials are still drafting a $1.1 billion recovery plan.

Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Norm Coleman said poor coordination was the problem in Katrina's aftermath, not a lack of money. They said the government's quick reaction to the bridge collapse reflected lessons learned from New Orleans.

"Here, there's a commitment to get the job done," Coleman, a Republican, said in an interview in Minneapolis. "And we will get it done, by the way, expeditiously."

Congress has approved $250 million to help fix the bridge. The government is also providing $5 million to help remove debris and reroute traffic.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, said both disasters underscore the need for greater investment in infrastructure. The same day the bridge collapsed, administration officials said Bush would veto a $20 billion water-projects bill he says was laden with pork-barrel programs.

Lawmakers such as Landrieu see the bill as critical to bolstering hurricane protection and improving water systems.

"I think this administration's strong suit has always been photo ops and speeches, and their weak suit has been follow through," Landrieu said. "And just as in tennis, it's all about follow-through."

Inspired by the president's New Orleans speech, Thompson thought help would be immediate and that the city would soon be "up and running and better than before." It's not.

She knows that's not entirely Bush's fault. But she feels let down and concerned for Minneapolis.

"I hope no one ever has to go through what we had to go through," she said. "I hope the president is true to his word, and those people get some kind of relief."


Associated Press writer Henry C. Jackson contributed to this story from Minneapolis.


Last update: 08/06/2007

(© 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)