WASHINGTON – President Bush (search), linking hurricane recovery and the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks four years ago, declared Friday that the United States was ready to "overcome any challenge."
"America is a strong and resilient nation," Bush said.
Meanwhile, the federal bill for Hurricane Katrina (search) relief soared past $62 billion, and the White House and members of Congress said it was bound to keep climbing. Bush scheduled his third trip to the devastated region for the weekend.
Congress rapidly and overwhelmingly voted Thursday night to fulfill an urgent plea for $51.8 billion, adding to $10.5 billion that was approved last week for hurricane victims. Bush signed the bill immediately, saying: "We will continue to help people rebuild their lives and rebuild the region."
Separately, a majority of Americans in an AP-Ipsos poll said that flooded areas of New Orleans lying below sea level should be abandoned and rebuilt on higher ground. Fifty-four percent chose that option, while 42 percent said to rebuild in the same place.
Bush spoke about the hurricane Friday at the swearing-in for Karen Hughes (search), the State Department's new undersecretary for public diplomacy — a post designed to lift America's image abroad to help win the war on terror.
Bush said that more than 100 nations had offered help after the hurricane, and he compared that to "a similar outpouring of support when another tragedy struck our nation" — the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington.
"Our people have the spirit, the resources and the determination to overcome any challenge," he said.
His speech marked the first of several steps in which the White House is seeking to intertwine the challenge of the anti-terror battle with the effort to recover from the hurricane.
Bush was to travel to Mississippi and Louisiana over the weekend, spending Sunday and Monday in the region visiting with storm victims and examining response efforts, press secretary Scott McClellan said. That trip was to follow Bush's attendance at a church service and White House moment of silence marking the fourth anniversary on Sunday of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The president's Saturday radio address also was to focus on both events and the government's response to them.
On Friday, he struck an empathetic tone.
"At this moment our fellow citizens along the Gulf Coast are struggling to recover from one of the worst natural disasters in our country's history," Bush said. "Thousands have lost their homes, they've lost their loved ones, they've lost all their earthly possessions."
Thursday night's congressional action made $2,000 available to each family displaced by the storm. Bush pledged to cut through red tape hampering victims from claiming federal medical, food and housing benefits.
"We have much more work to do, but the people who have been hurt by this storm need to know that the government is going to be with you for the long haul," Bush said Thursday.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., called the debit cards "a good start" on Friday but said evacuees will need a lot more money.
"We need to be able to get them the cash they need to be able to live and survive, even in the near term, because many of these folks live paycheck to paycheck," Vitter told CBS' "The Early Show."
The president designated next Friday as a national day of prayer and remembrance for Katrina's victims.
Promises for sustained federal help came amid heightening strain and signs that the road to recovery would be long.
Police prepared to evacuate residents reluctant to leave their homes. Much of New Orleans (search) remained flooded and those who stayed behind lacked power, water and food.
Vice President Dick Cheney toured the region Thursday and described "significant" progress. It was too soon to estimate the total cost of reconstruction, he said.
Bush used national emergency authority to waive sections of a federal law that requires payment of prevailing wages on government contracts, wages based on surveys that take into account union and nonunion pay. The waiver applies to disaster areas in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Democrats objected. "Hurricane Katrina took away their jobs, now President Bush will take away their wages when they find new jobs," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Democrats also questioned the wisdom of funneling $50 billion in recovery funds through the Federal Emergency Management Agency with questions swirling about whether it acted too slowly to help hurricane victims.
"After what we all have witnessed the past week or so, is there anyone in America who feels we should continue to rely exclusively on FEMA (search) to head the federal government's response to this tragedy?" asked Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Congressional Democratic leaders said they would refuse to appoint members to a committee that Republican leaders intend to create to investigate FEMA and the administration's response to the storm.
And some lawmakers started to sound alarms about the growing cost of recovery.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said federal spending should be re-examined and some programs cut while the Gulf Coast remains a priority.
"We're going to do the easy thing. We should pay for this," Coburn said. "We should pass this bill, but we should not pass it on the backs of our children and grandchildren."
Others cautioned against new authority that temporarily increases the purchasing limit from $15,000 to $250,000 for federal employees with government-issued credit cards working on recovery, arguing that it could lead to wasteful spending.