Add the most recent two ex-presidents to the increasingly crowded list of dignitaries who will be in New Orleans next week to pay their respects in the runup to the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and to highlight the work that has been done to recover during the past decade.
And yes, you read that right, former President George W. Bush will be in New Orleans as the city ramps up to commemorate a disaster that many critics say was so poorly handled by the federal government that it permanently tarnished his administration.
Bush’s visit will be sandwiched between the visits of President Barack Obama, who will tour the area on Thursday, and former President Bill Clinton, who will be onstage along with Mayor Mitch Landrieu for the formal ceremony commemorating the disaster on Saturday, the anniversary of the storm’s arrival in southeast Louisiana.
The presidential visits will highlight a week of events showcasing the progress that has occurred over a decade of recovery and pointing to the challenges the region still faces. Obama, Bush and Clinton each will focus on the work they did in office or through fundraising for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast as a whole.
Bush’s participation likely will be fraught with emotion for a city that suffered from an unresponsive administration in the days after the levees failed and 80 percent of the city was left underwater.
Bush will not be taking part in the official commemoration ceremonies on Saturday. Instead, he and his wife, Laura, will head to Warren Easton High School, which they also visited on the first anniversary of the flood in 2006. The school has received money from the Gulf Coast School Library Recovery Initiative. That fund was set up by former librarian Laura Bush’s foundation to help schools restock with books and materials after the storm.
The former president has been frank about the federal government’s inadequate response, calling his administration’s handling of the disaster “unacceptable” and writing in his memoir that its legacy “lingered for the rest of my time in office.” At the same time, his official presidential library downplays the criticisms of the way FEMA and the administration as a whole handled the immediate aftermath of the storm.
Gary Rivlin, author of “Katrina: After the Flood,” said that while he feels Bush at least partially redeemed himself by providing recovery aid to New Orleans in the months and years after Katrina, it was still unexpected that he would participate in next week’s events.
“I was not surprised to see Barack Obama was going to come. I was surprised when I saw the news that George W. Bush was coming,” Rivlin said. “That’s a little bit courageous. The fact that he’s stepping up, this is almost like him embracing the Iraq War.”
At the same time, he credited Bush for addressing issues of racism and inequality during his speech in Jackson Square a few days after the storm and for the administration’s later commitment to providing funding for the recovery, over the opposition of some in his own party.
“A cynic could say he had a horrendous political problem and had to kick in money to help New Orleans, but a lot of Republicans didn’t want him to provide anything,” Rivlin said.
The city said all current and former presidents were invited to the events commemorating the disaster.
“President Bush is an important part of our city’s recovery, and I have no doubt that he will be treated with dignity and respect in New Orleans,” Landrieu said in an emailed statement. “I would not expect anything less from the people of New Orleans.”
Obama’s visit on Thursday will include events with Landrieu. Both men, along with FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, also will meet with residents in neighborhoods that have been rebuilt since the storm.
Clinton will be onstage on Saturday, alongside Landrieu, at the city’s official event, the Power of Community gathering at the Smoothie King Center. Hosted by Soledad O’Brien, the event will include performances by numerous New Orleans musicians as well as speeches by officials.
After Katrina struck, Bush tapped his father, former President George H.W. Bush, and Clinton to raise funds for the Gulf Coast. The Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund raised $130 million for recovery efforts.
Clinton also has used his own foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative, to direct funds to New Orleans during the recovery.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.