President Bush on Thursday sought to assure victims of Hurricane Katrina (search) that his administration was working around the clock to meet their needs, and asked Americans across the country to pray for the effort.

"I've declared Friday, Sept. 16, a national day of prayer and remembrance," Bush said in a televised afternoon address. "I ask that we pray as Americans have always prayed in times of trial, with hope for a better future and with the humility to ask God to keep us strong so we can better serve our brothers and sisters in need."

Speaking so close to its fourth anniversary, Bush may have had in mind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, another great national emergency that has drawn comparisons to the Gulf Coast disaster.

Bush's administration has been assailed by mostly Democratic critics for what they say was a slow response to Hurricane Katrina. Many have wondered why it took so long to get food, water and medicine to evacuees or to secure such hard-hit areas as New Orleans. Democratic lawmakers have in recent days called for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (search), which has been rolled into the broader Homeland Security Department, to become a Cabinet-level independent agency again.

Bush urged Katrina victims to contact FEMA, saying that help was waiting and all they had to do was ask.

"People need to know the government is going to be with you for the long haul. The goal is simply not to provide benefits, but to make them as easy and simple as possible to collect," he said.

Bush vowed he would "cut through the red tape" to get aid into the hands of survivors as soon as possible, and said that signing up for the $2,000 FEMA-issued debit cards was just the first step in registering for future assistance.

The president explained several times how and where to get help, as miscommunication problems have hampered relief efforts from the start. As he was speaking, officials at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas, were dealing with heat-fatigued crowds of people waiting for their debit cards.

Bush continued to send representatives to the Gulf Coast region to show residents they had not been abandoned, after what even some Republican conceded was an insufficient start to the relief effort.

First lady Laura Bush and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings visited schools that had taken in displaced children. Speaking from Greenbrook Elementary in South Haven, Miss., Bush urged parents to enroll their children in a school even if their living situation was not set.

"It's important that you have the safe structure that a school gives you," Bush said, referring to the thousands of children who experienced trauma after Katrina.

Elsewhere, Vice President Dick Cheney (search), his wife Lynne and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (search) were surveying up close the damage left in Katrina's wake.

Cheney arrived in Louisiana Thursday afternoon, and was to be shown parts of that state's coast and take a Humvee ride to view repairs to a levee.

Earlier, Cheney and his entourage walked through the streets of Gulfport, Miss., where debris littered the ground and houses seemed damaged beyond repair. They group was also joined by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff (search), who greeted them at Gulfport-Biloxi Airport.

"I am tremendously impressed with the messages I've received from local folks here in Mississippi and along the Gulf, and the thanks they have expressed for the support they've received from all over the country," Cheney told reporters.

He talked to a man whose house was knocked off its foundation and had extensive roof damage and two or three arm chairs sitting in the front yard. He visited Rebecca Dubuisson, who said she spent a year and a half adding an extension on her house only to see it wiped away by the hurricane. "We've got a beach view now," she said.

Dubuisson said she didn't want to criticize the relief effort. "I don't know that you could have prepared for it," she said.

The mood was briefly disrupted when a man shouted, "Go [expletive] yourself, Mr. Cheney." The vice president paused briefly, made a quick joke and moved on.

While most of the people Cheney met with were friendly, it was clear a number of survivors were still angry at the government.

Lynne Lofton, whose house further down the street was destroyed, did not welcome the vice president.

"I think this media opportunity today is a terrible waste of time and taxpayer money," she said. "They've picked a nice neighborhood where people have insurance and most are Republicans."

President Bush dispatched Cheney to the region amid criticism of the sluggish pace of the federal response, to examine any bureaucratic red tape getting in the way of helping people and to focus on the long-term issues at hand.

Cheney sought to bridge the gap between the images of despair the news networks were broadcasting and what he said was a "very positive, can-do attitude" on the ground.

"The progress we're making is significant. The performance in general, at least in terms of information I've received from the locals, is definitely very impressive," Cheney said.

The vice president did address some causes for concern, such as whether federal agencies should clean up private property, floor and hurricane insurance discrepancies and mental health problems afflicting survivors.

When asked about the squabbles back in Washington over whether the panel investigating the government's response to Katrina should be congressional or independent, Cheney said he agreed with Republicans that a bipartisan committee of lawmakers "makes good sense." He did not answer a question about whether a lack of input from Democrats in the probe would adversely affect its effectiveness.

Before arriving in Gulfport, Cheney's plane, Air Force Two, flew over heavily damaged houses in the region. From Gulfport, Cheney flew by helicopter along the ravaged coastline to New Orleans. He landed in a parking lot across from the convention center where thousands of evacuees lived in filth for days.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.