President Bush marked the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by recapping the federal government's involvement in helping to rebuild New Orleans, which was devastated after levees failed.
"My attitude is this: New Orleans, better days are ahead," the president told a group of officials, including Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Donald Powell, who is the federal government's top liaison, and educators.
But the region is far from its former self after two years of slow responses, according to some in New Orleans.
The government earmarked $114 billion to help New Orleans, and President Bush said that so far 80 percent of the funds have been disbursed or made available.
"Don and I will try to work through the bureaucracy in Washington just like folks down here are trying to work through the bureaucracy to make sure that there are adequate plans for the money," he told those gathered at the Martin Luther King charter school, the first public school to open in the city's blighted Lower 9th Ward.
"We're here to herald excellence and to thank the folks at this school, which is a beacon of hope," Bush said.
President Bush said that the government had provided Louisiana with more than $700 million in emergency education funds, and touted that 80 schools were due to open this fall.
"It's money spent on construction, it's money spent on creating incentives for teachers to return, it's money spent to make sure (that school districts got reimbursed for) children who went to other school districts. It was good money spent because education needs to be the No. 1 priority of the state," Bush said.
It is the president's 15th visit to the Gulf Coast since the massive hurricane obliterated the coastal region and inundated most of the Big Easy on Aug. 29, 2005 — but only his second stop in these parts since last year's anniversary.
Hurricane Katrina made landfall south of New Orleans at 6:10 a.m. Aug. 29, 2005, as a strong Category 3 hurricane that flooded 80 percent of the city and killed more than 1,600 people in Louisiana and Mississippi. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.
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."
In fact, there is some good news here. 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.
Still, the biggest hurdle continues to be the weakened levee systems, Bush recognized. He pledged to better the storm and flood protection infrastructure to a 100-year protection level by 2011, and to fund a $1.3 billion network of interior drainage projects to ensure the area has better hurricane protection.
"The levee system is a federal responsibility and we will meet our responsibility. And obviously, we're going to work together with the state and local governments as well," he said.
Parts 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 up rents for those that are available. Crime is rampant and police operate out of trailers.
President Bush also boasted of commitments to help with local law enforcement. He also said the Veteran's Administration is going to build a medical center in downtown New Orleans.
But locals are weary with waiting, and say the government's priorities are confused.
"The federal government still seems to place a higher priority on troop surges in Iraq than on storm surges in our part of the world," New Orleans resident Walter L. Bonam wrote in an op-ed in Wednesday's edition of the The Times-Picayune.
President Bush and wife Laura also plan to spend a part of Hurricane Katrina's anniversary remembering the storm in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
From NPR reports and The Associated Press