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President Bush spoke to the nation last night from New Orleans. He pledged a massive federal effort to help the Gulf Coast rebuild. He offered words of encouragement for a stricken region and he took responsibility for the federal government's failings in the relief effort. NPR's David Greene reports.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

As darkness fell, the president arrived in the desolate French Quarter. He spoke to the nation from a podium set up at the edge of the grass in Jackson Square. He was across the street from Cafe Du Monde, a place familiar to beignet lovers when it's not looking so abandoned.

(Soundbite of presidential address)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm speaking to you from the city of New Orleans. Nearly empty, still partly underwater, and waiting for life and hope to return.

GREENE: The president said that time would come and this city and the entire region will be back. But first, he seemed to want Americans to know he shared their outrage over the television pictures they've seen coming from New Orleans in recent weeks.

(Soundbite of presidential address)

Pres. BUSH: Fellow Americans calling out for food and water, vulnerable people left at the mercy of criminals who had no mercy, and the bodies of the dead lying uncovered and unattended in the street.

GREENE: A majority of those suffering, Mr. Bush noted, were lower-income minorities. From there he made the issue of race a theme in his address.

(Soundbite of presidential address)

Pres. BUSH: As all of us saw on television, there's also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. That poverty has roots in the history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday and let us rise above the legacy of inequality.

GREENE: One way to do that, he said, is for Congress to pass an Urban Homesteading Act. The federal government would hand over land in a lottery system to low-income Americans who agree to build homes there. That was just one piece of a huge agenda he laid out, saying the federal government would absorb most of the rebuilding cost in the region.

He spoke for just over 20 minutes from a neighborhood that is not itself. His motorcade drove past pitch black streets with an occasional stray dog walking by. Members of the 82nd Airborne stood at each intersection saluting the president in the dark. The White House brought along its own lights and generators to illuminate St. Louis Cathedral and a statue of Andrew Jackson behind Mr. Bush. Before finishing, the president got to the question of what went wrong in the aftermath of the storm. He said there were problems at all levels of government and his administration shares the blame.

(Soundbite of presidential address)

Pres. BUSH: Four years after the frightening experience of September the 11th, Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency. When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I as president am responsible for the problem and for the solution.

GREENE: Afterwards, Mr. Bush helicoptered to the airport. He walked alone across a dark tarmac and boarded Air Force One. David Greene, NPR News.

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