Earlier this week, I had a chance to sit down and interview President George Bush one on one at the White House. I was given six minutes to interview the president and the questions dealt strictly with what was happening in Mississippi concerning our Katrina recovery. But the real fun came after the interview... More >>
Doug Walker, WLOX Assignment Editor and News Manager, was recently invited to The White House to interview President Bush about the federal government's role in Mississippi's recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
The following is a transcript of Doug's interview. Click on the red camera to the left to watch video of the interview, which took place in the Map Room of the White House.
Doug Walker: Mr. President, my first question to you is were you prepare to see what you saw the first time you landed in Mississippi, the complete and utter devastation brought on by Katrina?
President Bush: No, you can't imagine it, and neither can my fellow citizens imagine what it was like to go along that gulf coast and see complete and utter devastation. Not just on the coast, but inland as well. Another thing that struck me is kind of the random nature of the debris. I remember walking in Biloxi with the mayor, and we went through a neighborhood that was just obliterated and debris was stacked everywhere. It was mind boggling. It was unbelievably devastating.
Doug Walker: There's a feeling, a growing feeling, of discontent in Mississippi that the lion's share of the attention has been going to New Orleans - As is evident today on the front page of USA Today with only one mention of Mississippi. Is Mississippi being forgotten by the government and the nation?
President Bush: I don't know, I can't speak for a factor of the nation, you know the people that print the news. But I can tell you about the government, and the answer is absolutely, "No." This government is focused equally on Mississippi as it is on Louisiana. And one reason why we, of course, have remained focused is you got a governor who's got a lot of influence up here, and senators who've got influence up here. And so our efforts are equal in trying to help people recover. And I've got to applaud Mississippi because they have developed a plan, which was approved quickly, that will enable money to get out the door to helping individual homeowners rebuild.
Doug Walker: What do you think of the insurance mess in Mississippi? Hundreds of wind versus water lawsuits, Senator Trent Lott has sued his insurance company, Congressman Gene Taylor has sued his insurance company, some people are being stalled getting insurance payments to rebuild their lives. Is it time for the federal government to take a look at the insurance problem and possibly intervene?
President Bush: We have intervened. In this storm, we've written a large chunk of money to go to people to help them rebuild their homes - CDBG grant money that the state will be distributing, is distributing. As to whether or not, how you define flood versus wind, I'm sure there'll be hearings to that effect. I know there's been a lawsuit recently down there in Mississippi. In fact, I think Trent's brother-in-law carried the lawsuit trying to get the courts to define whether wind caused there to be flood. You know, I look forward to hearing the results of the hearings, if there are hearings.
Doug Walker: With the performance of FEMA, if you were to ask people in Mississippi, if they were to grade FEMA, maybe a 'D' possibly and 'F.' How would you grade FEMA's performance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? Can any agency be prepared for something like this?
President Bush: Well I think, let me just speak to the whole federal government. There's things we could have done better, in coordinating. Although I would tell you in Mississippi, I think the efforts were very well coordinated. Haley took the lead, and when he needed help, we tried to get him help as quickly as possible.
The debris removal was kinda hap-hazard at first, but we got together. I remember going down and talking to the local mayors and county officials and we worked out a way to be able to declare debris on private property as a health hazard, therefore we were able to move a lot quicker. Millions of cubic yards of debris have been removed from Mississippi.
The trailers, I know there was a level of frustration with the trailers, but then they started moving better. I can understand people being frustrated, I really can. I mean, if my life were turned upside down like the people's lives, I'd be frustrated too.
And you hear talk about money, and some people are wondering where it is. I'm told by the governor's office, the money's beginning to move, the CBDG money is beginning to move, which will help people rebuild.
Doug Walker: Most people take a look at the Mississippi Gulf Coast and most economic experts say it's going to be a five to ten year process before this place is rebuilt to any semblance of normalcy at all. How prepared is the federal government to keep assistance flowing to Mississippi over that 5 to 10 year period?
President Bush: I think that the best thing that we can do is to continue to provide, once we help people get their lives up and running. That first focus is, are the people. That's our focus. Is to keep those tax credits in place, tax relief in place to help encourage capital investments, which means jobs. The interesting thing about it is that the sales tax revenue, as I understand it, on the Gulf Coast is equal to, or higher, than it was prior to the storm.
Doug Walker: Most of the cities, it has skyrocketed. Except for the ones that were completely decimated like Pass Christian and Long Beach.
President Bush: Yeah, I understand. And my only point is it's hopeful, there's hope. Somebody asked me the other day, would I go there? Yeah, if I were a young entrepreneur, it would be an exciting place to go, because there is more money. And there's more money to come to help this part of the world rebuild.
Doug Walker: You mentioned earlier Haley Barbour, the governor and his role. How important was the fact that you know him personally and he knows you personally? You have very close ties. How much did that help Mississippi get aid quickly?
President Bush: Well, I think first of all our whole nation was to say the federal government will help by writing a pretty good sized check. We'll spend over $110 billion down there, but I say it's very important for the local folks to design the plan. I believe the federal government ought to trust local folks. And Haley set up a group, led by Jim Barksdale, it was a community group, very diverse and they went around and collected ideas and came forth with a plan. That's all we asked for. And we'll analyze it and fund it to the extent that the federal government is obligated. And Haley did a very good job of understanding our obligations. The CDBG money, he was very instrumental in helping get passed.
So, I do have a very good relationship with Haley, but I do believe the reason things are going as good as they are in Mississippi is that Haley took the lead in developing the plan, regardless of any personal relationship. It does help, however, that we're friends, and it helps that you've got Trent Lott and Thad Cochran as United States Senators.
Doug Walker: Mr. President, thank you very much for your time.
President Bush: Proud that you're here, thank you, thank you.
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