Bush vows to rebuild levees

On New Orleans visit, president criticizes Congress for cutting $1.5 billion in Katrina aid


NEW ORLEANS -- Making his 10th visit to this storm-battered region in the past six months, President Bush promised yesterday to rebuild and strengthen the breached levees that flooded New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina's wake and chastised Congress for cutting $1.5 billion from Louisiana's recovery funds.

As pile drivers clanged in the background, Bush vowed that the levees would be "equal or better to what they were before Katrina."

"We fully understand that if the people don't have confidence in the levee system, they're not going to want to come back," he said. "People aren't going to want to spend money or invest."

Bush urged Congress to make good on the White House request in December for $3.1 billion to fund New Orleans levee projects. Instead, Congress diverted about half the money to other projects of the Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing levee reconstruction.

"Congress heard our message but shortchanged it by $1.5 billion," the president said. "Congress needs to restore the $1.5 billion, to make this a real commitment, to inspire the good folks down here that they'll have a levee system that will encourage development and reconstruction."

He said the restoration of the levees would be completed by June 1, when the next hurricane season begins, with an upgrade done by September 2007.

With many residents frustrated by the slow pace of recovery, and much of the Gulf Coast still devastated, Bush's trip was designed in part to show that the federal government has not forgotten the plight of those whose lives were upended by the hurricane.

He visited the town of Gautier, Miss., stopping at an elementary school and touring a flattened working-class neighborhood. And on his 10th trip to New Orleans since the storm, Bush made his first visit to the Lower Ninth Ward, where neighborhoods were washed away and thousands of people spent days clinging to rooftops, awaiting rescue.

"There's still a lot of work to be done, no doubt about it," he said.

Inspecting the levee repairs, a shirt-sleeved Bush - joined by Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco - praised the work of construction workers and residents in reclaiming their lives.

"I appreciate the determination by the folks down here to rebuild," he said. "I fully understand, and I hope your country understands, the pain and agony that the people went through."

The trip is the president's first to the region since the publication last month of two scathing reports - one by a House committee, the other by the White House - criticizing the failure of government at every level in the response to Katrina.

It also follows the release this month by Associated Press of a video of an Aug. 28 conference call in which Bush was warned of concerns about the levees. The video confirmed the view of some residents that the president, who told ABC News on Sept. 1 that no one had expected a breach, was not telling the truth.

A recent poll of residents in New Orleans found the approval rating for the president's handling of Katrina at 23 percent - only one point above the much-derided Federal Emergency Management Agency and 10 points below Blanco, who also has been criticized for her actions. The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, published last week, found that Nagin had the highest approval rating - 54 percent - among those still living in New Orleans.

"The mood is really mixed," said John Kiefer of the University of New Orleans' College of Urban and Public Affairs. "There's an apprehension tempered by uncertainty."

Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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