President Bush vowed Thursday night to rebuild New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast with "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen."

In a prime-time address televised from the French Quarter in New Orleans, the president mourned "a tragedy that seems so blind and random" while promising to help its victims with unprecedented federal assistance to secure homes, jobs, health care and schooling.

Although Bush cited no price tag, he committed the nation to a plan that officials and lawmakers believe could top $200 billion, about the cost of the Iraq war and reconstruction, and which promises to reorient government for the balance of the Bush presidency. It will create much larger deficits in the short term, siphon off money that would have been spent on other programs and shift the focus of the White House, Congress and many state governments for the indefinite future.

Even as he embraced a massive spending program, Bush signaled that he would shape its contours with policy ideas long sought by conservative thinkers. He proposed creation of a "Gulf Opportunity Zone" that would grant new and existing businesses tax breaks, loans and loan guarantees through 2007. And in documents released before the speech, Bush called for displaced families that send children to private schools, including religious ones, to be eligible for federal money.

Eighteen days after Katrina smashed through the levees, flooding New Orleans, killing hundreds and displacing more than 1 million, Bush endorsed most of the criticism of the government's stutter-start response and vowed to investigate and retool its emergency plans. But he seemed to embrace a Republican plan for a GOP-majority congressional inquiry rather than the independent commission sought by Democrats.

-- Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker

In a prime-time address, President Bush vows to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.