NEW ORLEANS – Six months after Hurricane Katrina, President Bush got a close-up look Wednesday at the mountains of debris, the abandoned homes and the boarded-up businesses that are shocking reminders of the "pain and agony" New Orleans endures still.
In the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, few residents were around to tell Bush how they felt. But two young women held up a sign for his motorcade that said, "Where's my government?" Farther up the road, a man waved a flattened cardboard box on which he had written, "Pres. cut the red tape and help us."
The president scaled down the enthusiastic assessment he made on his last trip to New Orleans in January, when he suggested this city would be a great place for Americans to bring their families and have their conventions. This time, Bush discussed the hard work ahead.
"I'm getting a view of the progress that is being made," Bush said. "There's still a lot of work to be done, no question about it."
Demolition of the worst-damaged homes in the Lower Ninth Ward began only this week. Those not flattened by the storm had no signs of life and were spray painted with large Xs and, in some cases, the number of bodies found inside.
"You've got a pile of stuff here," Bush said after watching a small bulldozer push a pile of debris on a street littered with a mattress, toys, a cooking pot, several pairs of blue jeans, a box of Pasta Roni and a pair of women's underwear.
"We want people coming home," Bush said.
To help make that a reality, the president said Congress must come forward with money to compensate Louisianans whose homes were damaged or destroyed and to rebuild New Orleans' broken levees. Without it, Bush said, residents and businesses won't have enough confidence in their city's future to return and bring it alive again.
He criticized Congress' earlier diversion of $1.5 billion in levee-rebuilding money to non-New Orleans-related projects, saying lawmakers "shortchanged the process" of rebuilding the city. He said Congress must reverse the decision — even as lawmakers were poised to do so. A $19 billion hurricane-relief measure, set for approval by a key House panel, provides $1.5 billion in various Army Corps of Engineers water projects, chiefly for rebuilding New Orleans' levee systems.
The House bill also includes $4.2 billion in hurricane-related housing projects, but lawmakers directed that money to all states affected by Katrina. Bush said Congress must dedicate all that money just to Louisiana.
Getting new housing for displaced residents is a key step toward ridding New Orleans of the debris that still plagues much of it, Bush said. Speaking in an area dotted with mass-produced red-and-white signs blaring, "Save our Neighborhood. No Bulldozing," the president gently urged New Orleanians to return to inspect their properties, "salvage what they can," and give authorities permission to remove debris from their homes — many of which must be razed.
The president stopped in front of a pink duplex with signs on the porch that said "Keep out! No Trespassing!" Across the street, a house was spray painted with the familiar orange X and the words "DOG DEAD."
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin summoned Bush into the entryway of the pink home, where mold could be seen covering the walls at least chest-high. "You ought to come see this," Nagin said.
Bush's four-hour stop contrasted with previous visits to the city where he stuck to less affected areas. It began with a helicopter ride over a landscape of bright blue tarps covering damaged roofs. Then his flight path turned over the marsh land where trees lay on the ground and railroad cars and other debris were strewn in the swamp.
The president tried to focus on the positive. He ordered a meal to go of red beans and rice at a diner and posed for photos with proprietor Kim Stewart.
"Katrina knocked us down, but it's not going to keep us there," Stewart said with a smile. But asked whether about the pace of recovery, she changed her upbeat tune. "I think things should be a lot faster," she told reporters.
Said Bush: "I fully understand, and I hope your country understands, the pain and agony that the people of New Orleans and Louisiana and the parishes surrounding New Orleans went through."
Democrats said Bush has not done enough to help the city recover. Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and John Kerry of Massachusetts issued a report they said detailed the Bush administration's failures to respond adequately to the needs of homeowners and small businesses.
The report said 120,000 Gulf Coast residents are waiting to find out if they will get a disaster loan while more than 140,000 others have been turned down.
Some independent experts have suggested that the Army Corps of Engineers is taking shortcuts and using shoddy materials to meet the president's June 1 deadline to rebuild the levees. The agency denies those allegations and Bush said the levees will be "equal or better than what they were before Katrina."
"We fully understand that if the people don't have confidence in the levee system, they're not going to want to come back," Bush said. "People aren't going to want to spend money or invest."
Bush also visited Gautier, Miss., where first lady Laura Bush promoted her foundation that is providing grants to rebuild school library collections in the Gulf. The Bushes also stopped at a waterfront home that is being rebuilt and the president picked up a hammer to install a light fixture.