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Friday, March 2, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Complete hurricane coverage

Complete hurricane coverage

A special section

Bush sees "hope" on Gulf Coast

Los Angeles Times

NEW ORLEANS — Stung by criticism that he and his administration have neglected the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast, President Bush on Thursday made his first visit to the region in six months and proclaimed that "this is a hopeful day."

"Part of the reason I've come down is to tell people here in the Gulf Coast that we still think about them in Washington," Bush said, standing in the muddy lot surrounding a newly constructed home in Long Beach, Miss. "But times are changing for the better, and people's lives are improving. And there is hope."

Earlier this year, Bush was severely criticized for making no mention of Hurricane Katrina during his State of the Union address. He also was accused of responding too slowly when the storm struck in August 2005.

"Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster, compounded by a man-made disaster," House Democratic leaders said in a statement. "It is now 18 months past time to get our response right."

In a briefing for reporters on the way to Mississippi and Louisiana, administration officials said the criticism was misdirected. "I think there's been lots of progress over the last 18 months," said Don Powell, the administration's Gulf Coast recovery coordinator. "Children are in school. 'Help wanted' signs are up. The port is 100 percent back. Restaurants are open. ... Is there more to be done? Absolutely."

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that the trip was the president's 14th visit to the region since the hurricane struck.

Most of the president's trips were in the first two months after the disaster, the most expensive in U.S. history. His last trip to the region was in August, to mark the one-year anniversary of the storm.

One persistent source of tension between the administration and regional officials is the difficulty of spending the $110 billion the federal government has set aside for hurricane relief and recovery. Powell noted that just $53 billion had been spent.

Powell said that it was the responsibility of local officials to draw down the money that had been set aside and that the administration was committed to removing red tape.

"We're doing everything we can to speed that process. We all have a sense of urgency," Powell said.

But Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said the administration had declined to remove a requirement that local government put up a dime for every federal dollar they got — a small match, but prohibitive for towns whose tax base had been wiped out.

"Where are they going to get that money?" asked Adam Sharp, a spokesman for Landrieu, who turned down an invitation to accompany the president. "The most devastated areas are the ones with the least resources."

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