President Bush traveled to a still-ravaged Gulf Coast Thursday after three months away, promising that a building boom is on its way and encouraging other Americans to visit, too.
Bush's visit to New Orleans and Mississippi was part of a series of events to showcase his priorities leading up to the State of the Union address. He said he was committed to rebuilding communities devastated from Hurricane Katrina.
"People in far away places like Washington, D.C., still hear you and care about you," Bush told survivors gathered at St. Stanislaus College, just a couple of blocks from where Katrina blew ashore.
Bush's route to the college took him down a coastal road past thousands of snapped trees, debris still hanging from limbs and lots emptied of their buildings. There were almost no intact structures — in most cases only concrete foundations were left — and little evidence of rebuilding.
"There's no homes to repair," Bush said. "It's just been flattened. That's what the people of America have got to understand."
Unlike in New Orleans, where most of the population has not returned, the road was lined with dozens of onlookers. Many held signs pleading for help and pledging their determination to rebuild their communities.
Bush recalled his vow from New Orleans' Jackson Square to return the region to its glory.
"I said we're not just going to cope, we're going to overcome," he said. "I meant what I said."
Earlier on a brief stop in New Orleans, Bush said the improvement since his last visit in mid-October is dramatic.
"It may be hard for you to see, but from when I first came here to today, New Orleans is reminding me of the city I used to come to visit," he said. "It's a heck of a place to bring your family. It's a great place to find some of the greatest food in the world and some wonderful fun.
"And for folks around the country who are looking for a great place to have a convention, or a great place to visit, I'd suggest coming here to the great New Orleans," said Bush, seated before a colorful mural depicting jazz musicians, a river boat, masked Mardi Gras revelers and crawfish.
The president spoke to reporters before meeting privately with small business owners and local government officials in the New Orleans visitors bureau, located in the Lower Garden District neighborhood that was not flooded. The area suffered little impact from the storm, and his motorcade passed stately homes with very little damage.
Bush praised the city's success in bringing much of its infrastructure back — if not most of its citizens and businesses. He ignored a question about what he thought of the city's rebuilding plan, unveiled Wednesday to residents angry about a suggested four-month moratorium on new building permits in heavily flooded areas.
Many New Orleans neighborhoods are still abandoned wastelands, with uninhabitable homes, no working street lights and sidewalks piled with moldy garbage. The levee system is as vulnerable as ever. Barely a quarter of the 400,000 people who fled have come back, demographers estimate.
Bush said the federal government has made $85 billion available so far to hurricane recovery, $25 billion of which has been spent. He said that is "good help so far," and said much of the work will have to be driven by the private sector.
He rapped Congress for diverting $1.4 billion of the levee rebuilding money to non-New Orleans-related projects. "Congress needs to restore that $1.4 billion," he said.
Before returning to Washington Thursday night, Bush planned to attend a Republican National Committee fundraiser at the sprawling oceanfront estate of Dwight Schar in Palm Beach, Fla. Schar is CEO of NVR Homes, a major homebuilder and mortgage banking company, and co-owner of the Washington Redskins football team. He raised more than $200,000 for Bush's re-election campaign.