Bush sees Gulf Coast "whole again" -- eventually


By Patricia Wilson
Thu May 11, 2006 5:07 PM ET

BILOXI, Mississippi (Reuters) - President George W. Bush said on Thursday he envisioned the Gulf Coast "whole again" even as he spoke in a stadium still under repair from Hurricane Katrina's fury more than eight months ago.

On his 10th visit to Mississippi since August 29's killer storm, Bush's motorcade passed snapped trees, shattered boardwalks and piers reduced to a jumble of matchsticks. It came to a stop not far from the crumpled skeleton of a hotel next to the Mississippi Coast Coliseum.

Speaking to about 660 graduates of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, which sustained more than $15 million in damage but reopened just 17 days after Katrina hit, Bush paid tribute to the students' resilience.

"Mississippi is coming back and it's going to be better than ever before," he said, adding that the recovery will take time.

Bush has threatened to veto a $108.9 billion bill passed by the Senate that funds the Iraq and Afghanistan wars -- but also includes $28.9 billion for hurricane rebuilding -- because it is loaded with extra spending he did not seek.

The House of Representatives passed legislation in line with Bush's request and the two chambers will try to work out their differences by the end of the month.

Many residents, especially in New Orleans, have been frustrated by the slow pace of recovery and political fallout from the federal government's botched response to Katrina has contributed to the lowest poll numbers of Bush's presidency.

Democrats cite the handling of the disaster as evidence of the administration's "incompetence" and hope to turn it to their advantage in November elections to decide if Republicans retain control of Congress.

Bush said the population of coastal Mississippi had returned almost to full strength, every school district had reopened, more than 90 percent of the debris had been cleared and more jobs were available in the state than before the storm.

"There is going to be a day when communities across Mississippi sparkle with new homes," Bush said. "New vitality will emerge from the rubble and cities from Mobile to Biloxi to New Orleans will be whole again.

"It's going to take time for that vision to be realized," he said.

Katrina killed about 1,300 people, displaced hundreds of thousands and severely damaged New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

With the new Atlantic hurricane season three weeks away, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has made changes and officials say they are ready. Bush did not mention the government's much-maligned disaster agency.