MOBILE REGISTER: Secretary of state: Race was definitely no factor in response
- Secretary of state: Race was definitely no factor in responseMonday, September 05, 2005By EDDIE CURRANStaff Reporter
BAYOU LA BATRE -- Neither President Bush nor the federal government would have reacted any differently to the devastation in New Orleans had most of those stranded in the flood-raged city been white, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during a visit here Sunday.
With President Bush taking a public relations lashing for the federal government's real or perceived failure to respond quickly to the devastation in New Orleans, Rice embarked Sunday on a diplomatic assignment not to a foreign country, as is her accustomed duty, but to the Gulf Coast of the United States of America.
First at a church in Prichard and later during a stop at the Bayou La Batre Community Center, Rice sought to assure people of the region and the world that the federal government is pulling out all stops to end the suffering wrought by Hurricane Katrina.
She used the occasion to counter accusations, especially from black leaders like Jesse Jackson, that the federal response to the New Orleans' nightmare would have been swift and overwhelming had most of those stranded in that city been white.
"This response is not about color. I don't believe for one minute that people were allowed to suffer because of their color," said Rice, who is black and an Alabama native.
"How can that be the case? Americans don't want to see Americans suffer. Nobody, especially the president, would have left people unattended on the basis of race," she said.
"Across the spectrum, white, Asian, African-American, what you're seeing is Americans pulling together to help Americans," Rice said.
She made those comments during a brief press conference at the community center that's being used as the focal point of relief efforts for the thousands of residents of Bayou La Batre and neighboring Coden whose homes were lost or severely damaged by winds and rising waters.
With microphones and cameras from local, national and international media recording her every breath and movement, the secretary of state knelt down and put several canned goods into a box. Then she walked outside, hoisted another box of groceries, and placed it in a car driven by a middle-aged Asian woman who didn't seem to know what to make of the sudden swarm of attention.
Rice, known for her poise in dealing with the media and congressional panels, was perhaps the only person in Bayou La Batre who wasn't sweating.
The secretary of state urged Americans to understand that with Hurricane Katrina, local, state and federal officials faced a disaster without precedent in the history of the United States. She acknowledged that the "the magnitude of this one probably got the upper hand" in the days following the storm, but asked Americans to focus on the efforts being made now and to come.
One lesson learned the past week: Next time an American city faces a threat like Hurricane Katrina, the government needs to do a better job of providing means of evacuation for the poor, the elderly and the sick, Rice said. It was during the period before the storm that government agencies could have done the most to prevent the suffering that was to come, she said.
A French journalist asked Rice about the donations of food and money that are pouring in from other countries, France included. He asked her to respond in French, but she demurred. Rice noted that even Sri Lanka, so recently devastated by the tsunami, has pledged to send aid, as has the United Nations.
Rice also praised Alabama for agreeing to accept thousands of the newly homeless from Louisiana and Mississippi, even as the state battles through its own crises.
Joining Rice Sunday at church and later, in Bayou La Batre, were U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama; U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile; Mobile Mayor Mike Dow, and a host of city councilmen and county officials, including mayoral candidate and Mobile County Commissioner Sam Jones.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley attended the church service, then flew to Birmingham to review efforts being made there and elsewhere to house and care for what are expected to be tens of thousands of evacuees from Mississippi and Louisiana.
During his sermon and in comments during the service, Pilgrim Rest pastor Rev. Malone Smith Jr. stayed away from political commentary. "This is not a political rally, it's a religious rally," he said at the start of the service.
The theme of his sermon was the metaphor of midnight as the darkest period in a person's life.
"Some things presidents can do, some things governors can do, but only the Lord you are serving has the power to bring you out of midnight," Smith said, to a host of amens.
Near the end of the service, Smith walked to the front pew, where Rice was seated. With a broad smile and a twinkle in his eye, the pastor said to the congregation, "If you will excuse me a minute, I must talk to the head lady in charge for just a second."
Rice stood and the two whispered to one another for about a minute. Then Rice walked to the front and addressed the audience.
"We've gone through midnight this week," she said, in connecting the experience in New Orleans and the country to Smith's sermon.
Before Rice arrived at the Bayou La Batre Community Center and no doubt well after she left, what seemed like hundreds of volunteers, many sweating profusely, gave boxes of groceries, baby supplies and other goods to those in need of the assistance.
Among the helpers was City Councilman Henry Barnes, who worked with State Department officials yesterday to map out a route for Rice to take when arriving into town to meet with city officials, then to the center, and lastly, as she did upon leaving, for a drive through some of the most affected areas.
"I figured the route out for her. I got her in and got her out. I'm a jack of all trades," said Barnes, laughing despite appearing near exhaustion from the sweltering heat and humidity and the long days since Katrina.
"It was very nice she came," Barnes said. "It shows concern from the federal government. An 'atta-boy' and a pat on the back goes along way."
Peter Dow notes,
Hey, the Mayor of Mobile, Alabama, is a guy called Mike Dow! That's one lucky Dow to be in attendance with Condi!
Peter Dow, Owner, Rice for President, Yahoo Group
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