It has been two years since Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast, destroying whole stretches of the region, including much of the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. VOA White House correspondent Paula Wolfson reports President Bush says the process of recovery is well under way and there is hope for the future.
The president went to the Gulf Coast to mark the anniversary of the storm with the people who felt its fury.
In New Orleans, he visited the first school to re-open in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city. He called it a place of hope in a town on the mend.
"Hurricane Katrina broke through the levees, it broke a lot of hearts, it destroyed buildings but it did not affect the spirit of a lot of citizens in this community," said Mr. Bush.
The president said the commitment of the people and the government is strong. But he acknowledged that, two years after the hurricane, the task of rebuilding remains enormous.
Mr. Bush said the pace of progress may seem slow to those who live in storm-ravaged neighborhoods. But he says for those who visit from time to time, the difference is striking.
"It is sometimes hard for people to see progress when you live in a community all the time," he added. "Laura and I do not live here, we get to come on occasion. And it is easy to think about what it was like when we first came here after the hurricane and what it is like today. And this town is coming back!"
The president spoke of the billions of dollars set aside to repair infrastructure, homes and help people put their lives back together. He said a priority has been repairing and strengthening the levees that broke during the storm, pouring flood waters into the city, much of which lies at or below sea level.
"We fully understand that New Orleans cannot be rebuilt until there is confidence in the levees," he explained. "It is one thing to plan. It is another thing to convince people the levees will work."
Major repairs on the levees have been completed, and an intensive effort to strengthen them is scheduled to be finished by 2011. The levees are the responsibility of the federal government, and military engineers are running the project.
The military also played a key role in rescue and recovery efforts in the chaotic days and weeks following the storm. General Russell Honore led the troops that helped New Orleans.
"This notion of rebuild and recovery is one that will require a lot of teamwork," he said. "And as we look to the future, let us remember the lessons of Katrina and say to ourselves never again."
The Bush administration was criticized for its initial response to Hurricane Katrina, in which roughly 1,600 people died and tens of thousands were left homeless along the Gulf Coast. And General Honore, a son of Louisiana, was sent in amid charges that the federal agency set up to handle emergency relief was slow to act.
One year after the storm, only about 50 percent of New Orleans' residents had returned according to statistics from the U.S. Postal Service. Today, that number is up to just under 70 percent.
A poll taken earlier this month by CNN shows 52 percent of Americans believe the federal government has not done enough to rebuild areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
In addition to Louisiana, the storm also damaged towns along the Gulf Coast in the nearby states of Alabama and Mississippi. From New Orleans, President Bush traveled to Mississippi to inspect a major bridge that was destroyed by Katrina and is now partially open to traffic.