President Bush returned to the storm-battered Gulf Coast on Tuesday, telling local leaders that amid the rampant devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina there are promising signs of recovery.
Bush, who has faced harsh criticism for a confused and sluggish federal response to the deadly hurricane, said he was "pleased to see the progress being made on the ground" in the difficult task of rebuilding the region.
The president's trip marked his fifth visit to the area since Katrina flattened much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and unleashed a flood that submerged most of New Orleans. Now, as the floodwaters are being pumped away, much of city and surrounding area remain uninhabitable and crusted in dried mud.
As the region struggles to dry out and lay plans for rebuilding, officials were concerned about Hurricane Rita, which Tuesday was making its way toward the Gulf of Mexico. Bush attended a briefing about the storm aboard the USS Iwo Jima, an amphibious assault ship docked near downtown New Orleans, where it serves as a recovery command center.
With Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) seated to his right, Bush watched three huge video screens and listened as federal forecasters attempted to project the path of the hurricane.
The visible federal preparations for Rita stand in contrast to the delayed response that followed Katrina. Although Bush signed emergency orders to ready federal help in anticipation of Katrina, precious days passed before the Federal Emergency Management Agency was able to mount an all-out response. Hundreds of people were killed in the hurricane; others were trapped on rooftops or in hellish shelters for days.
The ineffective federal response has shaken public confidence in an administration that prides itself on its cool efficiency. In Katrina's aftermath, Bush's approval ratings have plummeted to new lows, and polls have found that a dwindling share of Americans give him high marks for leadership.
Since the early confusion, Bush has moved to recover the initiative, vowing to lead one of the largest rebuilding efforts ever seen. Already, more than $62 billion has been appropriated, and some members of Congress have estimated that the rebuilding tab could go as high as $200 billion.
Using FEMA data, the National Low Income Housing Coalition yesterday estimated that Katrina destroyed or heavily damaged 302,000 homes. About 142,000 homes were lost in New Orleans alone. The housing advocacy group said that apartments accounted for 47 percent of units lost or damaged overall, and 55 percent in New Orleans.
In his visit here, Bush said local officials and businesses are making impressive progress in rebuilding and bringing economic life back to the stricken region.
Bush toured a Folgers coffee plant, where 110 trailers are lined up to house workers who have returned to the job. Plant officials said 150 of the facility's 500 workers are back to work and that one of the plant's 10 lines is working to package and ship coffee throughout the country.
"We've got some people working here because of the ingenuity of the plant managers," Bush said. ". . . This company has provided housing for the folks who work here."
Earlier in the day, Bush stopped in Gulfport, Miss., where he met with members of a state commission appointed to lead the storm recovery effort. The meeting was held in a white tent set up in the parking lot of a still-shuttered outlet mall that until a week ago served as a staging area for utility crews working to restore power.
As Bush entered the tent, the business leaders and others inside erupted in applause. "W, we still love ya," someone cried out, causing Bush to crack a smile.
Bush listened quietly as Gov. Haley Barbour (R) pledged to rebuild Mississippi's Gulf Coast and make it better than ever. "Creating a renaissance in this area is what I'm going do the rest of the time I'm in office," Barbour said.
Bush also heard testimonials from business leaders who pledged their efforts to help rebuild the Mississippi coastline.
"Every time I come back here, I see progress," Bush said. ". . . This part of the country is changing. You're moving forward."