GULFPORT, Miss.—President Bush saluted the resilience of Hurricane Katrina survivors here Monday and promised that their plight hadn't been forgotten a year after the storm cut a swath of death and destruction along the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts.
"Even though we've been through about one year together, one year doesn't mean that we'll forget," Bush told community leaders at a luncheon in Biloxi, Miss. "As a matter of fact, now is the time to renew our commitment to let people down here know that we will stay involved and help the people of Mississippi rebuild their lives."
Bush's stops in Mississippi and New Orleans were part of a two-day trip to mark the first anniversary of a hurricane that killed 1,695 people, displaced 770,000 others and caused at least $96 billion in damage when it hit land on Aug. 29, 2005.
Bush is using the anniversary to reassure gulf residents and Americans that his administration is on top of the recovery effort after doing an admittedly poor job in the initial days following the hurricane.
Before leaving Washington, he was briefed by Homeland Security officials on Tropical Storm Ernesto, which has cut through the Caribbean, put Florida on alert and caused some jitters in this region.
Last week, the White House put out a four-page document detailing what the administration has done for Gulf Coast residents in the past year.
It said that Bush's stewardship helped secure $110 billion in federal funds for recovery efforts, for repairs to New Orleans' damaged levee system in time for the 2007 hurricane season and for removing tons of post-Katrina debris from the gulf.
But several experts say that even those recovery efforts have been problematic. Of the $110 billion, only $77 billion has been released and only $44 billion has been spent.
Funds from a $17 billion program to rebuild about 204,000 homes in Louisiana and Mississippi are just now starting to flow into the region. Federal emergency officials have expressed confidence that New Orleans' levees are ready for a major hurricane, though the head of the Army Corps of Engineers, which repaired the system, said it's not clear whether the levees can withstand a big hurricane.
Bush acknowledged some of the problems on Monday, particularly in getting people back into their homes.
"I know there's some frustration," he said of federal-state efforts to get homeowners money so they can rebuild their properties. "The checks have begun to roll. They're beginning to move."
Still, despite White House attempts to show Bush leading a more focused recovery, his early handling of Katrina's aftermath continued to dog him. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll released this week showed complaints about Katrina have eroded confidence in Bush's handling of the disaster and trust in the country's ability to handle another one.
The survey found that 31 percent of Americans now approve of the way Bush handled the hurricane, down from 46 percent a year ago. It also found that 56 percent don't believe that the country is ready for another disaster.
Bush doesn't share the nation's pessimism. He marveled at the progress made in one neighborhood that he had visited four days after Katrina hit.
"I was struck by the beauty of the beaches," he said. "The beaches were pretty rough after the storm, as you know. Today they are pristine and they're beautiful. They reflect a hopeful future, as far as I'm concerned."
Sensing a political opening, Democrats planned to counter Bush's trip with a broad array of events on the Gulf Coast and around the country designed to underscore complaints about the federal government's response to the hurricane.
The main effort was a three-day trip to the region starting Monday by 25 House Democrats and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the House minority leader. Their schedule included tours, town hall meetings and daily news conferences.
Individual Democrats planned a conference call Tuesday morning along with the Campaign for America's Future, a pro-Democrat group, to outline the federal government's "failures" and to charge that hurricane rescue and recovery was hurt by "the conservative ideology of disinvestment, cronyism and corruption."
Several Democratic congressional candidates planned media events Tuesday to link their Republican opponents to the failures of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after Katrina.
In suburban Philadelphia, for example, Democratic House candidate Joe Sestak planned to use a Tuesday news conference to ask, "Do the people of this district want more of the same FEMA-style government, or do they want a new direction in the way Congress handles the critical needs of the American people?"
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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