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Bush Offers Hope To Gulf Coast

President Bush is urging Congress to approve a massive reconstruction program for the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast and promising that the federal government will review the disaster plans of every major American city.

It was the president's attempt to get beyond the failures following Hurricane Katrina and snatch the initiative, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante. Speaking to the nation from the heart of New Orleans, Mr. Bush promised massive federal help to reconstruct the Gulf area.

"There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again," the president said from the French Quarter's Jackson Square.

"Tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives," President Bush said.

For evacuees, Mr. Bush promised continued help to locate loved ones and to find housing in apartments or temporary housing.

"Our goal is to get people out of shelters by the middle of October," he said.

In a few days, residents will begin moving back into the city, speeding the revival of the economy in places like the French Quarter — the bawdy enclave that suffered relatively minor damage in the hurricane but is still without electricity.

Mayor Ray Nagin announced plans Thursday to reopen some of New Orleans' most vibrant and least flood-ravaged neighborhoods over the next week and a half, including the French Quarter. The move could bring back more than 180,000 of the city's original half-million residents.

In other developments:

  • Lawmakers were working to assist hurricane survivors who need quick access to cash, housing and medical care. The House and Senate passed bills to let victims tap retirement accounts without penalty and help some families retain tax credits.
  • The Labor Department reported that the hurricane triggered the biggest one-week surge in jobless claims in nearly a decade.
  • Mississippi has sued insurers to force them to pay billions of dollars in flood damage, saying standard insurance polices led homeowners to believe they were covered for all hurricane damage, whether from high winds or storm surges.
  • Large sections of New Orleans remain accessible only by boat, and corpses can still be seen out in the open.
  • Many who owned their home had no flood insurance and little savings now are worried, reports CBS News Correspondent Randall Pinkston. Developers are reportedly seeking to buy as much land as possible in the city, and houses under water for more than two weeks probably will be knocked down, raising a delicate the question: Who will be able to come back to the new New Orleans?
  • More than 400 truckers and their rigs, loaded with Katrina relief supplies, are sitting at the John Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Miss., at big taxpayer expense, reports Amanda Lamb of CBS affiliate WRAL-TV. That's because there is a decreasing need for the supplies in the Gulf Coast areas hit by Hurricane Katrina. Some of the truckers are being paid as much as $1,000 a day by FEMA.
  • Federal funds, said the president, will provide most of the money for repairing roads, bridges, schools and water systems. But the states and cities will take the lead in planning their rebuilding. And, mindful that so many of the hardest hit poor were African-American, Mr. Bush addressed the race issue.

    "That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America," the president said in his speech. "We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action."

    Saying he would listen to good ideas from anyone, the president called on Congress to pass three new programs, reports Plante:

  • A "Gulf Opportunity Zone," with tax incentives for companies, including minority businesses;
  • "Worker Recovery Accounts" to provide up to $5,000 for job training, education and child care; and
  • An "Urban Homesteading Act" — a lottery for free government land to those who promise to build on it.

    For some, jobless because of the hurricane, the president was not convincing.

    "Do I believe anything? I'll believe it when I see it," said evacuee Joey LaBella.

    "You've got to do a lot better job than this, Mr. Bush," said evacuee Bill Raye.

    But one local official who has been critical of the federal efforts disagreed.

    "I think the president's speech last night was probably his best outside of war time. He said it all. He was compassionate. He gave some specifics about how people were going to be helped," said Jefferson Parish president Aaron Broussard on CBS News' The Early Show. "Mainly he gave hope."

    Long-time Democrat Mitch Landrieu, Louisiana's lieutenant governor, thought making the speech from New Orleans' French Quarter was a good move.

    "It was very poignant that used the symbol of the soul of our city to make that statement," Landrieu told Dave Cohen of CBS radio affiliate WWL-AM. "It indicates to me that the White House really now understands the depth and the breadth of this tragedy."

    Broussard offered one reason for the slow federal response: A lack of communication from the devastated area.

    "Mother Nature took us from the Jetsons to the Flintstones in about three hours," Broussard said. "We all had no use of telephones, no use of cell phones, no use of Blackberries. We were humbled. Everything we thought we had at the beginning of this century in high technology was thrown out window."

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