Two years to the day after Hurricane Katrina landed its deadly blow on the Gulf Coast, President Bush toured the region Wednesday pointing to successes and offering encouraging words in New Orleans and Bay St. Louis, Miss.
In Bay St. Louis, Bush addressed a group gathered in front of a bridge that had been wiped out by the storm. He said the bridge was a prime example of how federal, state and local government has worked well together since the storm.
"Remember when we first choppered over here, Governor (Haley Barbour), there might have been a few pylons showing. You could see the planks underwater. ... It's a major connector for the people in this part of the world. This is an economic lifeline. So the federal government said we have an obligation to repair infrastructure," Bush said.
"This bridge was built in record time," Bush said.
Bush acknowledged that concerns over the federal government's commitment to the region continue. He said that is why he and first lady Laura Bush continue to visit.
Citizens, he said, "are worred about the president and other folks in Washington — other than the Mississippi officials, are going to forget what took place down here. So one of the reasons that Laura and I have come back is to remind people that we haven't forgotten, and won't."
Earlier in the day, Bush stopped at Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School in New Orleans. He and the first lady took part in a brief moment of silence before the president addressed a group gathered there. He also spend the day meeting with local officials.
Bush said New Orleans is recovering and its future is bright.
"My attitude is this: New Orleans, better days are ahead," Bush said. He also applauded local education efforts as well as broader rebuilding efforts, including federal work to rebuild levies and wetlands.
"It's sometimes hard for people to see progress when you live in a community all the time. Laura and I don't live here. We visit on occasion. ... This town's coming back. This town is better today than it was yesterday, and it's going to be better tomorrow than it was today," Bush said.
He urged people to volunteer to improve schools and libraries, and said the city — while adding 80 new schools — needs teachers. He also called for donations to local non-profits.
"We care deeply about the folks in this part of the world. We ask for God's blessings for the families who still hurt and suffer, and we thank God for the recovery effort that thus far has taken place," he said.
The tour comes amid ongoing criticism the federal government isn't doing more to get the city and Gulf Coast back to their former selves.
It is the president's 15th visit to the Gulf Coast since the massive hurricane obliterated coastal Mississippi, drowned most of the Big Easy and killed 1,600 people in Louisiana and Mississippi when it roared onto land the morning of Aug. 29, 2005 — but only his second stop in these parts since last year's anniversary.
The performance by the president and the federal government in the immediate aftermath of the storm — and some residents' lingering sense of abandonment since — severely dented Bush's image as a take-charge leader.
As on other visits, the president and his team arrived here armed with facts and figures to show how much the Bush administration has done to fulfill the promises the president made two-and-a-half weeks after the hurricane.
"We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives," Bush said then from historic Jackson Square in New Orleans' French Quarter. "This great city will rise again."
The city's population is rebounding, and a few neighborhoods thrive. New Orleans has recovered much of its economic base and sales tax revenues are approaching normal. The French Quarter survived Katrina, and the music and restaurant scenes are recovering.
But much of New Orleans still looks like a wasteland, with businesses shuttered and houses abandoned. Basic services like schools, libraries, public transportation and childcare are at half their original levels and only two-thirds of the region's licensed hospitals are open. Rental properties are in severely short supply, driving rents for those that are available way up. Crime is rampant and police operate out of trailers.
Along Mississippi's 70-mile shoreline, harsh economic realities also are hampering rebuilding.
Many projects are hamstrung by the soaring costs of construction and insurance, while federal funding has been slow to flow to cities. Other economic indicators are down — such as population, employment and housing supplies.
Bush's Gulf Coast rebuilding chief, Don Powell, noted the federal government has committed a total of $114 billion to the region, $96 billion of which is already disbursed or available to local governments. Most of it has been for disaster relief, not long-term recovery. He implied it is local officials' fault, particularly in Louisiana where the pace has been slower, if money has not reached citizens.
Powell also said the president intends to ask for the approximately $5 billion federal share of the $7.6 billion more needed to strengthen New Orleans' levee system to withstand a 100-year storm and improve the area's drainage system. Though the levees are not yet ready for the next massive storm, they are slated to be strengthened by 2015.
But Powell said other areas — such as infrastructure repair and home rebuilding — are shared responsibilities with local officials or entirely the purview of state and local governments, suggesting that the federal government is absolved when those things don't happen.
The president and Mrs. Bush began this anniversary's visit with dinner Tuesday night with about two dozen politicians, athletes, musicians, developers and others at Dooky Chase, once a gathering place for civil rights leaders now famous for its traditional Creole cooking.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.