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Bush tries to reassure Biloxi residents that help is near

BILOXI, Miss.—As homeless, hot and haggard East Biloxi residents stood in line at a Salvation Army truck for plates of ravioli and cups of water, President Bush walked through the nearby rubble and promised federal help is coming.

"We're going to clean all this mess up," Bush said. "Tonight I will sign the first down payment of $10.5 billion."

Bush, in his first on-the-ground look at Katrina's damage, took a walking tour of the main drag in old Biloxi, now reduced to debris. He consoled victims and conferred with federal, state and local leaders who tagged along.

Bush fended off questions about the slowness of federal aid and whether resources are stretched too thin by Iraq and Katrina's aftermath.

"I just completely disagree with that," Bush said. "We have a job to do with the war on terror, and we have a job to do to help the people on this coast. We'll do both. We've got what it takes to do more than one thing."

He added: "I don't think anybody could be prepared for the vastness of this destruction."

Bush noted that while things in Mississippi are awful, law and civility have not broken down as they have in New Orleans. For that he thanked Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and other state and local officials, and the people of the Gulf Coast.

"There's a spirit here in Mississippi that's uplifting," Bush said. He urged patience, and cautioned that rebuilding the Gulf Coast would take years.

Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway said he believed Bush's visit accomplished one of its main goals: "helping morale."

"I think it helps to have the president see things firsthand," Holloway said.

"I think he was quite shocked. You can see pictures and on TV, but I don't think that really shows it. The president promised me he was going to help with any needs we have. We're getting support. Things happen every day, get better."

Bush urged patience as federal aid is deployed, and warned that, while temporary relief of food, water, fuel and shelter is on the way soon, rebuilding the coast will take years.

"Out of this rubble is going to come a new Biloxi, Mississippi," Bush said. "It may be hard to see that now, standing here in the rubble, but it will come."

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(Pender is a staffer for The (Biloxi) Sun Herald.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-KATRINA

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