Bush: Katrina recovery just beginning

BILOXI, Miss. -- President Bush said Monday the huge job of rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina was just beginning a year after the massive storm but expressed hope that the $110 billion of help sent from Washington would be enough.

Trying to erase the black mark left on his presidency by the administration's sluggish response to Katrina, Bush returned to the first scene he saw a year ago of the storm's devastation.

Standing on a vacant lot in a working class neighborhood where trailers and gutted buildings stand next to newly built homes, Bush pledged the federal government would stand with the region as it rebuilds. It's a promise viewed with skepticism by victims still reeling from the storm.

"A year ago, I committed our federal government to help you," Bush said. "I said, 'We have a duty to help the local people recover and rebuild,' and I meant what I said."

Of the $110 billion in hurricane aid approved by Congress, just $44 billion has been spent. Overall, the administration has released $77 billion to the states, reserving the rest for future needs.

"Hopefully that'll work. Hopefully that's enough," Bush said after visiting a company that has restarted its business of building and repairing boats. "It's certainly enough to get us through the next period of time."

Bush focused on the positive, but acknowledged that much remains to be done.

"It's an anniversary, but it's not an end," Bush said. "Frankly it's just the beginning."

Asked how long the rebuilding would take, Bush said: "I would say years, not months. On the other hand, the progress in one year's time has been remarkable."

The welcome Bush received in Biloxi was warmer than the one he is expected to get in Louisiana, where recovery efforts have moved much more slowly. The president ended the day in New Orleans, dining at Mother's Restaurant, a local institution known for its po'boys and red beans and rice, with Mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and other local leaders.

Bush and his guests weren't the restaurant's only famous patrons. Actor Rob Lowe was eating there with his family, and expounded on the city's great need. He took a cut in pay for his latest TV movie, "A Perfect Day," so it could be filmed in New Orleans and bring business to the area.

"It's devastating," Lowe said of the conditions in the worst-hit, poorest parts of the city, which he toured the day before. "It's so sad."

On Tuesday, the actual anniversary of Katrina, Bush has a half-day of events in New Orleans.

"There is a division over there," Thomas "Lynn" Patterson, who gave Bush a tour of his new home in Biloxi, said about New Orleans. "There's not the same division over here."

When Bush visited Patterson's neighborhood right after the storm, the 61-year-old was digging cars out of the muck. Patterson said Bush told him then that he wanted to make sure that people got the aid they needed.

"He hasn't forgotten it," said Patterson. "We don't expect him to pull out his wallet and write a check for us. He personally would do it if he could because he's a passionate guy."

When Katrina struck Biloxi, 100-mph-plus winds and a wall of water obliterated a bridge and splintered houses like matchsticks. Water topped rooftops. Entire neighborhoods were washed away.

Today, seven of the city's gambling emporiums, which employed 15,000 people before Katrina, have reopened or are close to doing so. Still, just blocks away from the gambling resorts, rebuilding is sparse. It's a city where buildings still carry spray-painted messages appealing for help from insurance companies.

Bush had lunch at the Biloxi Schooner Seafood Restaurant, where owner Joe Lancon fed the president and other government officials fried shrimp, stuffed crab and gumbo. Lancon reopened the restaurant in the west end of the city after losing two restaurants in Katrina's 28-foot tidal surge.

Asked if he wanted to rebuild at his original site closer to the water, Lancon replied: "Do I want to? Yes. Am I? I don't know. The water really kinda has me second-guessing whether I'm going to go back down there."

"It's going to take a while for Biloxi to get back to normal," said Lancon, a native whose grandfather was a shrimp peeler. "I would say maybe five years. It's a slow building process."

Nationwide polls give Bush low marks on Katrina. An AP-Ipsos poll earlier this month showed 67 percent disapproved of his handling of the disaster.

With Hurricane Ernesto bearing down on Florida, Democrats have been coordinating a political assault on the Bush administration's Katrina response, hoping to sway voters to cast ballots against Republicans in the upcoming congressional elections and beyond.

House Democrats on Monday toured devastated areas of New Orleans and decried the slow pace of recovery. "I think the American public is going to be very, very surprised to know this recovery is way, way behind what their expectations would have been," Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said after a tour that took more than a dozen Democratic members of Congress through the heavily hit Ninth Ward.

"It's hard to believe this is the United States," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

Associated Press Writer Mike Kunzelman in Biloxi contributed to this report.