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Bush Encouraged by Pace of US Gulf Coast Reconstruction

U.S. President George Bush returned to America's southern Gulf Coast to visit areas destroyed by a killer hurricane 18 months ago. VOA White House Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, opposition Democrats say the Bush administration has been slow to distribute funds meant to help those affected.

President Bush says he is encouraged by the progress of rebuilding along the Gulf Coast following the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history.

"Times are changing for the better. And people's lives are improving," he said. "And there is hope. And I congratulate the good folks in this part of the country for their resiliency, their courage, and the fact that they never abandoned hope."

The president was widely criticized for the government's poor response to Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005.

Mr. Bush responded by sacking the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and making repeated trips to the region. On this 14th visit since the storm, the president again sought to reassure residents that he is committed to helping rebuild their lives.

"Part of the reason I have come down is to tell the people here on the Gulf Coast that we still think about them in Washington, and that we listen to the governor when he speaks," he said.

"The other reason I have come down is I want the taxpayers of the United States to see first-hand what their money has done to help revitalize a series of communities that were literally wiped-out because of a major storm," he continued.

Mr. Bush met with homeowners and local officials affected by the storm in the states of Mississippi and Louisiana. He said it is the federal government's role to write checks, and the local community's responsibility to decided how that money is best spent.

Congress has approved $110 dollars of relief aid - $8.6 billion have been allocated to specific projects, and $53 billion of that total have been spent so far.

Democrats in Congress say the Bush administration shares some of the blame for delays in financing.

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu says she is grateful for the president's visit to the region Thursday but says he needs to do more.

"It's going to take more than words and more than visits," she said. "It's going to take action to get the job done. And I am calling on the president today to use the authority that he has, to use his leadership."

Landrieu want the president to waive the requirement that people who receive federal assistance ultimately repay 10 percent of those funds.

A monthly report by the Brookings Institution research group says demand for essential services continues to overwhelm supply, with overfilled emergency rooms and waiting lists for students at public schools.

The report called on officials at all levels of government to streamline bureaucracy hindering repairs to housing and infrastructure damaged by the storm which killed more than 1,800 people.