WASHINGTON – President Bush expressed his pride Tuesday in military servicemen and women who have been helping with Hurricane Katrina relief.
Speaking in Belle Chasse, La., to National Guardsmen representing 49 states, the president thanked the soldiers for their service.
"I am incredible proud of those who wear our nations uniform and I am incredibly proud of the job you have done. You have brought great credit to your units, credit to your family and credit to our nation," Bush said outside the J. Harry Barker III Memorial Gymnasium, which has been used as a military headquarters. A military tent city surrounds the gym.
"Out of this rubble is going to come some good. Out of the devastation is going to come new cities and new hope, and I hope you take great inspiration in being a part of the renewal of this important part of the world," Bush said.
From the makeshift military site, Bush boarded Air Force One to return to Washington, D.C., following an overnight trip to the devastated region. In one of his last stops in Louisiana, the president met with Lt. General Russel Honore. Honore has been the commander of the Joint Task Force Katrina, and Tuesday was his last day leading the group before returning to his post at Fort Gillem, Ga.
Honore is commander of the First Army which, among other things, trains National Guard units going to Iraq. In addition to the general's return to Georgia was the departure of the Navy hospital ship USS Comfort, which has been posted on the Mississippi River since shortly after Katrina struck. About 650 active duty soldiers are still in the area helping with relief efforts.
Earlier in the day, told students and teachers in Pass Christian (search), Miss., that the re-opening of Delisle Elementary School is a clear sign of progress six weeks after Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast.
Bush said his eighth trip to the region has been uplifting. On repeated trips flying over the region, he has seen piles of debris disappearing and electricity returning to most of the communities in the region.
Delisle is the only school left standing in Pass Christian. Despite its brick exterior, the building took a serious beating, but volunteers helped drain the water and clean up the mud.
"Part of the health of the community is to have a school system that is vibrant and alive, and in spite of the fact that a lot of the equipment was damaged, homes destroyed and teachers without places to live, the school district is strong. It's a sign that out of the rubble here on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi is a rebuilding and a spirit of rebuilding and thank you all for having me," Bush told teachers and students.
"I want to thank the principals and teachers for understanding that the quality of the education in a community helps define the nature of the community," he added.
Many of the families of the students in the school lost all their belongings in Hurricane Katrina. Pass Christian has been "adopted" by ABC's "Good Morning America."
The stop at the school, where Bush also discussed with local officials the billion-dollar cleanup of Mississippi's schools, was his second of the day. Earlier, the president and first lady pitched in at a Habitat for Humanity (search) building project in Covington, La., about half an hour outside of New Orleans. They said they wanted to set an example to encourage other Americans to pitch in and speed up the recovery.
The sound of hammers rang through the pitch-dark town as the brightly lit Habitat site hummed with activity. Bush, wearing a hard hat, work gloves and a large wraparound tool belt, drove nails into a sheet of plywood while the first lady, a cloth nail pouch around her waist, accompanied him.
Bush spent most of his time chatting, signing autographs and posing for pictures. At one point, a woman threw him some Mardi Gras beads that fell to the ground. "I couldn't catch them during the real Mardi Gras and I can't catch them now," he quipped.
Hundreds of thousands of people lost homes in hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The site in Covington will eventually house 15 families displaced by the first storm. Housing is one area the president pointed to as a place in which the federal response is still falling short.
The president has said he wants everyone out of shelters by the middle of this month, just days from now. But tens of thousands of trailers are empty because crews haven't been able to hook up power and water to them fast enough. The rushed effort continues, though, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency program that pays for hotel rooms expires at the end of the month.
Bush had dinner Monday night at a French Quarter restaurant with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (search) and the Bring Back New Orleans Commission. The commission is made up of business and religious leaders.
Aides say the president told them that the federal government will support their rebuilding plan and not impose one from Washington. The president said local and state officials know the place best and know how to make the best decisions for the area.
"I don't think Washington ought to dictate to New Orleans how to rebuild," he said. Bush said he had told Nagin that "we will support the plan that you develop."
Asked about the government's initially slow response to Katrina, Bush told NBC's "Today" show, which interviewed him and the first lady at the Habitat for Humanity site on Tuesday: "If I didn't respond well enough, I'm going to learn the lessons."
The federal government's response to Rita got better reviews than Katrina, suggesting the federal responders learned in a hurry about their mistakes.
"The story will unfold. I mean, the facts of the story will come out over time, and the important thing is for federal, state and local governments to adjust and to respond," Bush said.
The president's aides have rejected criticism that the president's frequent post-hurricane trips are politically motivated. Aides say he's delivering on a promise to be a partner in rebuilding the area.
But Democrats are complaining about the cost of the loans to displaced people from New Orleans, asking why hurricane victims have to pay back loans when Iraqis don't have to pay back money they've received from Washington.
Bush responded that most Americans don't want to interject politics into the hurricane response.
"What Congress has said is, you'll have five years to repay plus an additional five years to repay. And so I think it's the kind of package that Congress was comfortable with giving and I was happy to sign it," Bush said.
During the morning interview, Bush also discussed other issues. He predicted that the Oct. 15 Iraqi elections on a new constitution would be marked by violence from "a group of terrorists and killers who want to stop the advance of democracy." And, Bush said, "I also expect people to vote."
He also expressed confidence that the government would develop a plan "to handle a major outbreak" of bird flu if it spreads to this country.
The president declined to discuss a federal grand jury investigation that includes an inquiry into the role, if any, that top adviser Karl Rove (search) played in disclosing the identity of an undercover CIA agent. "I'm not going to talk about the case. It's under review. Thank you for asking," Bush said tersely.
Asked how her husband was holding up personally under the strains of recent major crises and setbacks, the first lady was about to answer when the president interjected: "He can barely stand. He's about to drop on the spot."
Laughing, Mrs. Bush said: "He's doing great. He's got big broad shoulders."
FOX News' Wendell Goler, Bret Baier and Nick Simeone and The Associated Press contributed to this report.