Bush dines in French Quarter

President meets with community leaders on plans for rebuilding New Orleans


WASHINGTON -- President Bush made his eighth visit to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, meeting yesterday with state and local officials over a private dinner in the French Quarter to review rebuilding plans.

Bush dined with members of the Bring Back New Orleans Commission, which was set up by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

Also invited were Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, who is in charge of all federal relief efforts, and Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, who is leading the military's response to Katrina.

"The president pledged that he would be a partner as the Gulf Coast region recovered and rebuilds itself. ... He looks forward to hearing from the leaders of the communities themselves about how they want to rebuild," said deputy White House press secretary Trent Duffy.

With a self-imposed deadline rapidly approaching, the president also monitored progress on his ambitious goal of emptying by mid-October all temporary shelters set up after Katrina.

But as many as 32,000 evacuees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were still in 468 shelters around the United States as of last weekend, the government said.

In his prime-time address to the nation from the city's Jackson Square, Bush said on Sept. 15 that one of his goals was to "get people out of the shelters by the middle of October" and into houses, apartments, mobile homes and trailers.

Today, Bush and his wife, Laura, are scheduled to participate in a Habitat for Humanity project in Covington, a suburb of New Orleans, before going to Pass Christian, Miss., to attend the reopening of the Delisle Elementary School. Habitat for Humanity is building homes for storm victims.

On his only other post-Katrina overnight stay in New Orleans, Bush slept on the USS Iwo Jima, an amphibious assault ship that was docked on the Mississippi River near the convention center. But on this trip, the president and his entourage spent the night at the Windsor Court Hotel near the French Quarter.

The two-day trip - Bush's eighth to the storm zone and fifth to New Orleans since Katrina struck on Aug. 29 - marked the president's public return to the hurricane recovery.

It was nearly two weeks ago, during a Sept. 27 visit to towns in Louisiana and Texas slammed by Rita, that he last held an event devoted to the storms.

The administration's ineffective response to Katrina cut into the public's image of Bush as strong leader, built after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

He initially responded to the criticism of the storm response by making frequent visits to affected areas, committing the government to spending billions of dollars on the recovery in hopes of regaining lost ground.

More recently, the president has pivoted his focus to the Supreme Court, Iraq and, particularly, terrorism - delivering three speeches in three weeks on the campaign against terrorism.

He has also been talking about two new crises: fears that an Asian bird flu will develop into a worldwide human killer and the deadly earthquake that struck South Asia over the weekend.

Edwin Chen writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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