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Bush Visits Hurricane-Wrecked Areas of Gulf Coast

President Bush says the federal government is making progress in rebuilding levees around the city of New Orleans that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Some independent engineers question whether that work is being done properly.

Following a tour of areas flooded during last year's killer hurricane, President Bush said there is still a lot of work to be done.

"I appreciate the determination by the folks down here to rebuild. I fully understand, and I hope our country understands, the pain and agony that the people of New Orleans and Louisiana and the parishes surrounding New Orleans went through," said Mr. Bush.

Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,300 people along the Gulf Coast and flooded much of New Orleans. President Bush says the government's first priority is rebuilding levees that gave way in that storm.

"We fully understand that if people don't have confidence in the levee system, they are not going to want to come back. People are not going to want to spend money or invest," he said.

The president says the Army Corps of Engineers is on schedule to repair damaged levees by June 1.

By identifying and correcting design and construction deficiencies, President Bush says Army engineers will have the levee system equal to or better than what it was before Katrina. By September of 2007, Mr. Bush says the levees will be stronger than before.

Briefing reporters ahead of the trip, the head of the Army Corps of Engineers, Lieutenant General Carl Strock, said 160 of the city's 270 kilometers of damaged levees have already been restored.

Two independent analyses of some of that reconstruction have questioned the speed with which the work has been done, suggesting that layers of earth have not been allowed to properly settle before more layers are applied.

General Strock dismissed the allegations, saying those engineers were looking at the wrong dirt. However, he did admit that rebuilding the levees to pre-Katrina strength will not prevent flooding in low-lying areas if a similar storm hits during the next hurricane season which starts in less than 100 days.

President Bush called on Congress to fully fund a $4.2 billion request for community development and housing programs in Louisiana. Congress says that money should be distributed to all states affected by Katrina, which includes Mississippi and Alabama as well.

First Lady Laura Bush accompanied the president on the trip and urged officials from schools damaged by the storm to contact a private foundation she leads to apply for funds to restore their libraries.

"We all know that schools are at the center of every child's life," she said. "And the routine of going to school gives children a sense of comfort that is more important than ever for boys and girls who have endured trauma. The sooner children are back in their own schools, the happier and healthier they will be."

It was the president's 10th visit to areas flattened by Hurricane Katrina and his first since separate White House and Congressional reports criticized the response by federal, state, and local officials.