- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 12, 2006

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. (AP) — President Bush traveled to a still-ravaged Gulf Coast yesterday after three months away, promising that a building boom is on its way and encouraging other Americans to visit, too.

Mr. Bush’s visit to New Orleans and Mississippi was part of a series of events to showcase his priorities leading up to the State of the Union address. He said he was committed to rebuilding communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

“People in faraway places like Washington, D.C., still hear you and care about you,” he told hurricane victims gathered at St. Stanislaus College, just a couple of blocks from where Katrina blew ashore.

Mr. Bush’s route to the college took him down a coastal road past thousands of snapped trees, debris still hanging from limbs and lots emptied of their buildings. There were almost no intact structures — in most cases only concrete foundations were left — and little evidence of rebuilding.

“There’s no homes to repair,” he said. “It’s just been flattened. That’s what the people of America have got to understand.”

Unlike in New Orleans, where most of the population has not returned, the road was lined with dozens of onlookers. Many held signs pleading for help and pledging their determination to rebuild their communities.

Mr. Bush recalled the vow he made in New Orleans’ Jackson Square to return the region to its glory.

“I said we’re not just going to cope, we’re going to overcome,” he said. “I meant what I said.”

Earlier, on a brief stop in New Orleans, Mr. Bush said the improvement since his last visit in mid-October was dramatic.

“It may be hard for you to see, but from when I first came here to today, New Orleans is reminding me of the city I used to come to visit,” he said. “It’s a heck of a place to bring your family. It’s a great place to find some of the greatest food in the world and some wonderful fun.”

The president spoke to reporters before meeting privately with small-business owners and local government officials in the New Orleans visitors bureau, located in the Lower Garden District neighborhood that was not flooded after the hurricane.

Many New Orleans neighborhoods remain abandoned, with uninhabitable homes, no working streetlights and sidewalks piled with moldy garbage. The levee system is still vulnerable. Barely a quarter of the 400,000 people who fled have returned, demographers estimate.

Mr. Bush said the federal government has made $85 billion available toward hurricane recovery, $25 billion of which has been spent. He said that is “good help so far,” and that much of the work will have to be driven by the private sector.

He rapped Congress for diverting $1.4 billion of the levee-rebuilding money to non-New Orleans-related projects. “Congress needs to restore that $1.4 billion,” he said.

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