Ex-presidents tour Galveston after Ike

October 14, 2008 4:37:01 PM PDT
Former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, seeing firsthand the damage Hurricane Ike wrought, asked Americans Tuesday not to forget about the island or other Gulf Coast communities hit hard this hurricane season. ROAD TO RECOVERY: How you can help | Person locator | Important phone numbers | Assistance from FEMA | Filing a claim

Bush and Clinton toured Galveston Island and the storm-wrecked Bolivar Peninsula by helicopter and met with local and federal officials to get an update on the ongoing repair and recovery efforts.

Ike blasted ashore near Galveston on Sept. 13, flattening buildings and killing at least 37 people in Texas.

"What we're seeing is abject devastation and determination to come back," said Bush as he and Clinton stood atop a chunk of concrete lying on a debris-riddled Galveston beach. "We're going to do our best to try to help."

Clinton said he and Bush know the country's attention is on the current financial crises.

But he urged Americans to donate money to the Bush-Clinton Coastal Recovery Fund the former presidents started last month to help Texas and Louisiana communities hard-hit by this year's hurricanes recover. Officials estimate Hurricanes Ike and Gustav, which hit Louisiana on Sept. 1, combined to cause $47 billion in damage.

"We don't want Americans to forget about it," Clinton said. "We're trying to urge people to give to this fund to help (communities) come back quicker."

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who joined the presidents on their tour of Galveston, is overseeing about 40 business and civic leaders from the affected region to help raise money for long-term recovery projects.

Bush and Clinton had a similar fundraising effort after 2005's Hurricane Katrina.

Baker said $1.5 million has so far been donated but he knows it will be hard to raise money in today's troubled economy.

"The focus of the country is on the hurricane in the financial sector and away from the hurricane here," Baker said. "We are trying to get that focus back."

Bush and Clinton also visited a community center where residents told them about their rebuilding efforts and lives with government aid.

Clinton said he believed the response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Ike was better than the agency's highly criticized handling of Katrina.

The former presidents ended their tour surveying the hard hit beaches on Galveston's west end, where Ike's 12-foot storm surge wiped away homes, scattering wood, mattresses, furniture, pavement and other debris across the sand.

Bush, who lives in nearby Houston, said the destruction on Galveston "hits close to my heart" because he has visited the island many times.

"These people are hurting," Clinton said. "We've got to do what we can to help them."

The Bush-Clinton fund will be used toward rebuilding infrastructure along the Gulf Coast.

Local officials in Galveston told the former presidents that without federal assistance it will be very difficult for the island to fully recover.

Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc said he and Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas stressed to federal officials Galveston's importance to the region because of its port, the tourism dollars it brings in and the medical care its renowned hospital, the University of Texas Medical Branch, provides.

Thomas said Galveston will need $2.2 billion for its recovery efforts.

"I think we are going to get funding and we may get it sooner rather than later because our needs are so great," Thomas said.

Galveston County Judge Jim Yarbrough said he was grateful for any help Bush and Clinton can provide.

"Money is important but their influence is equally important," he said.

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