WASHINGTON – After surveying recovery efforts on his fifth tour of the storm-stricken Gulf Coast Tuesday, President Bush (search) said progress is being made despite the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina.
"I want the people to know that there's progress being made in this part of the world," Bush said, while visiting New Orleans. "We've got a lot of work to do, but people are determined to get the job done."
Bush met with federal officials via teleconference aboard the USS Iwo Jima, which is leaving the region Wednesday to avoid Hurricane Rita. The officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and National Hurricane Center Deputy Director Ed Rappaport, said Rita is strengthening into a Category 3 hurricane that could hit the upper to middle part of the Texas coast by the weekend and could create tropical storm conditions -- or, much less likely, hurricane-force winds -- in southeastern Louisiana.
"We're watching very closely, of course, its track," Bush told an audience at a Folgers coffee plant in Louisiana that recently restarted operations. "All up and down the coastline people are now preparing for what is anticipated to be yet another significant storm."
Bush was in the region for the fifth time on Tuesday. He toured New Orleans again and met with state and city officials, including Mayor Ray Nagin (search), who offered advice to residents for when they are allowed to return to their homes and businesses.
"We want you to come prepared with your eyes wide open as it relates to what you might see," Nagin said.
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen (search), who is in charge of the federal government's relief and recovery efforts on the ground, led the update with the president. Nagin gave Allen a New Orleans t-shirt as a souvenir and thanks for his hard work.
"This is one leadership team. We may not always agree. But we have one mission and that is to bring New Orleans back," Nagin said.
A day after helping pressure Nagin to stop the re-opening of the city, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan (search) told reporters that the president and the mayor "have a good working relationship.
"We are all working toward the same shared goal," McClellan said aboard Air Force One en route to the region.
He added that the administration is conscious of and concerned with growing frustration about aid to individuals.
"We've got to continue working to get them assistance as quickly as we can," McClellan said. "There is some level of patience that obviously is going to be required during this time ... but we are urging everyone to move forward as quickly as they can to get people the help they need."
Earlier in the day, Bush traveled to Gulfport, Miss., where he said a better Mississippi will emerge.
“Mississippi spirit is strong. There is a can-do attitude,” Bush said after meeting with Gulfport business leaders. “Out of the rubble and out of the huge heaps of timber that used to be homes, a better Mississippi will emerge.”
Bush also met with Mississippi residents and officials on the first stop of his visit and signed an emergency declaration for Florida as Hurricane Rita blasted the Florida Keys with downpours and strong wind.
About 200 business leaders in Gulfport met with Bush inside a tent, where the Mississippi Recovery and Renewal Commission was talking about ways to encourage new jobs, expand housing infrastructure and hasten reconstruction. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour joined the president on stage with about 25-30 people, including Mississippi Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor and Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr.
Meanwhile, a large temporary city of brown tents set up by soldiers was in full operation; several homes had blue tarps serving as roofs. A Federal Emergency Management Agency registry number was spray-painted on the front of one house and some store fronts were missing, exposing parts of businesses intended to be seen only from the inside.
Bush said he saw progress in recovery efforts in Mississippi. Jim Barksdale (search), chairman of Gov. Haley Barbour's newly-formed commission, which is assisting in recovery efforts, said commission members only have themselves to blame if they fail at rebuilding the infrastructure.
"You folks are like the pig at a ham and egg breakfast," Barksdale said. "You are committed."
Rita drew worries that the Gulf Coast region could be hit again — just weeks after Katrina devastated Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Navy ships USS Shreveport and USS Iwo Jima, both at the port of New Orleans, are leaving Wednesday to get out of the way of Rita. The USS Tortuga left the port in New Orleans Tuesday on a regularly scheduled rotation and the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship, left the coast of Mississippi, as well. Six Navy ships and four Coast Guard ships are also moving out of the region in advance of the storm.
Townsend to Investigate Katrina Response
In Washington, the White House confirmed that Fran Townsend (search), Bush's in-house homeland security adviser, was designated to investigate "what went right, and what went wrong" in recovery efforts.
Townsend will call a meeting with Cabinet secretaries in the next few days, McClellan said.
The appointment of Townsend, a former federal prosecutor with a reputation as a tough adversary, is unlikely to satisfy Democrats on Capitol Hill who are demanding a fully independent investigation.
"How in the world can we get to the truth of the question as to what went wrong with Hurricane Katrina, how can we really hope to discover the incompetence that led to all of this human suffering and devastation if the administration is going to investigate itself?" asked Sen. Dick Durbin (search), D-Ill., the Senate minority whip.
Separately, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (search) complained Tuesday that Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee refused to offer an alternative to a bicameral, bipartisan select committee to review what many say was the government's tepid initial response to Katrina.
Reid of Nevada said 90 percent of the American people want an independent commission, "but Senator Frist wants to take the Homeland Security Committee here, call it a select committee, marry it to the House so that members over there who get their positions by bowing and scraping to their leadership" can investigate their own without consequence.
"We will not stand for that," Reid said.
Bush planned to return Friday and Saturday to visit Alabama, Texas and Arkansas — neighboring states that have taken in large numbers of Katrina evacuees.
Supporters said the number of trips to the Gulf Coast show that Bush is compassionate and in control. But critics said Bush's efforts are a sign that he is overcompensating for initial administration failures.
Crews are busy clearing debris and pumping the water out of New Orleans while anxiously watching the path of Rita. Forecasters warn that Rita could enter the Gulf of Mexico and possibly hit some of the same areas wiped out by Katrina three weeks ago.
On another front, 21 House Republicans sent a letter demanding that Bush find spending cuts in federal programs to offset the massive cost of rebuilding the Gulf Coast. Conservatives, worried that the deficit will balloon, have been alarmed at the pace of spending with no talk of how to pay for it.
Sen. John McCain (search), R-Ariz., suggested dropping the Medicare prescription drug plan, which he has long opposed. "It was supposed to cost $400 billion," he told CBS Evening News. "It's now up to $700 billion. We ought to cancel it, go back to square one."
Bush last week ruled out raising taxes to pay Katrina expenses and said other government spending must be cut. His aides have said, though, that no such cuts have yet been identified and that the hurricane relief effort will temporarily swell the deficit.
Estimates of the final cost have reached $200 billion and more. Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton are trying to generate private giving in response to the disaster. Former President Bush said the private contribution will be minimal compared to the government response.
"It's just a drop in the bucket compared to what federal money is going in there. But what we're doing is directing it to the governors for special needs and also to the faith-based community, because a lot of the churches were just simply wiped out and now they're taking in people and don't have the funds to handle all that," the former president told FOX News.
FOX News' Greg Kelly and The Associated Press contributed to this report.