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Bush Vows to Speed Up Aid for Gulf Coast
BILOXI, Miss., March 1 — President Bush traveled today to the Gulf Coast, still trying to recover from the winds and floods of 2005, and vowed to do everything he could to speed up federal assistance.
“Of the things I’ve heard loud and clear is that there’s a continued frustration with the slowness of federal response at times,” Mr. Bush said at Biloxi City Hall after meeting with public officials and community leaders. “And therefore it’s important for me to hear that, and my friend Don Powell to hear that, so that we can come and do what the people expect us to do, which is to respond to the needs of people in Mississippi.”
Mr. Powell, the federal coordinator of rebuilding efforts along the Gulf Coast, said on the flight from Washington that “we all have a sense of urgency” about the region. “Is there more work to be done?” he said aboard Air Force One. “Absolutely.”
The president was accompanied by Gov. Haley Barbour, whom he praised for his leadership during and after the storm.
“And he, along with two fine United States senators, are constantly talking to the White House in pretty plain language about what more needs to be done,” Mr. Bush said, referring to Senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, both Republicans. “And I hope he would say that we listen and if possible respond in a constructive way.”
The visit by the president, which was to include a tour of parts of New Orleans, is his 14th to the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina struck in the late summer 2005, and Mr. Powell said on Air Force One that it was further evidence of a continuing commitment to rebuild the region.
Mr. Powell said that about $110 billion in recovery aid had been appropriated for Louisiana and Mississippi, and that about $53 billion had actually been spent. “It is important that local officials push” to get money into the hands of people who need it, Mr. Powell said.
The initial response to the hurricane and flooding was criticized at the federal, state and local levels. But the Bush administration suffered a bad public relations blemish when the president complimented Michael D. Brown, then head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for doing “a heck of a job” even as the agency was being criticized for its slow and clumsy response. Mr. Brown resigned soon afterward.
If Mr. Bush took a “we’ve learned our lesson” approach today, he also pointed to progress. Walking through Long Beach, not far from Biloxi, he recalled how much better things look now than they did on his first post-Katrina trip, when he saw “piles of rubble, literally debris stacked upon debris.”
Mr. Bush looked relaxed as he bantered with Long Beach residents. Nellie Partridge, 84, was sitting on her porch when the president and Governor Barbour showed up. Ms. Partridge hugged Mr. Bush and called him “one of my favorite people.”
“There’s no telling who’s going to show up,” Mr. Bush said.
Robert Pear reported from Biloxi, Miss., and David Stout from Washington.