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Still Not Easy In The Big Easy

It was one year ago - August 29, 2005 - that Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit the United States of America, came ashore. Over 1,800 people were killed in Louisiana and Mississippi, 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded, and hundreds of thousands were uprooted to shelters and temporary homes all over the United States.

Katrina grazed Florida before making landfall at 6:10 a.m. on Aug. 29, 2005, in Buras, a tiny fishing town 65 miles south of New Orleans on one of the fingers of land jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico. Entire blocks of houses, bars and shops vanished, whipped into the Gulf by a wall of water 21 feet high.

The category 4 storm then roared into the Big Easy and Mississippi, and things began to look better in New Orleans as the sun came out and winds subsided.

But it was only a calm before the deluge – as the levees broke and America saw catastrophe on a scale previously unimagined.

President Bush and other officials are in the Gulf Coast for anniversary ceremonies and assessments of progress in rebuilding.

"My message to the people down here is that we understand there's more work to be done," Mr. Bush said Monday night at dinner with Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, pledging continued government assistance with the recovery. "The federal government will remember the people ... this is an anniversary but it doesn't mean it's the end."

First lady Laura Bush says her husband understands that many people in the area blame him for the slow response.

"He's very committed to the Gulf Coast. And I actually think that the people in the Gulf Coast know that," she said on CBS News' The Early Show.

"The outpouring of support for the people of the Gulf Coast from Americans and from people around the world is unprecedented," Bush told Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith. "I know that the people of the Gulf Coast know that the American people are standing with them."

"Money is beginning to go out the door so people can rebuild their lives," President Bush said Monday in Biloxi, talking about rebuilding efforts in that state. "In Louisiana, it's been a little slower."

But Nagin is promising the good times will roll again in New Orleans.

"We will have probably one of the biggest construction booms that they've ever had, so we will have an updated city with the quality of life issues that people have in other cities," he said on The Early Show. "But this is for pioneers. This is hard work and it's going to take us a good three to five years to rebuild this city or to get it to some semblance of what we were accustomed to prior to Katrina hitting us."

Throughout New Orleans, trailers still line driveways in neighborhoods where debris is stacked up in piles and unchecked weeds have overtaken abandoned houses. Only half the population has returned. Many of those who have have elected to take on long-time financial hardship and start rebuilding, rather than waiting any longer for federal assistance, reports .

Emergency medical care is doled out in an abandoned department store, while six of New Orleans' nine hospitals remain closed.

It's estimated that only half of New Orleans' 2,300 doctors have returned since the storm — and there are even fewer nurses. "It's full out, emergency medicine, sick people and lots of 'em, all day long," emergency services specialist Dr. Tracy Legros .

Only 54 of 128 public schools are expected to open this fall. Only 50 percent of New Orleans has electricity.

The one-year mark is a reminder of how much needs to be done — and of how far each survivor has come.

"Only when it's dark can you see the stars," said the Rev. Alex Bellow, at a gathering outside a school in the Lower Ninth Ward. "So when they tell you, 'You're not going to make it,' you keep looking up."

In New Orleans' Jackson Square last year, Mr. Bush offered three proposals to help fight poverty. One idea was carried out. The Gulf Opportunity Zone is giving $8.7 billion in tax breaks to developers of low-income housing, small businesses and individuals.

But worker recovery accounts, which were meant to help victims find work by paying for school, job training and child care, didn't materialize. And neither did the Urban Homesteading Act that would give poor people sites to build homes that they would finance themselves or get through programs like Habitat for Humanity.

The president is stressing that the states and local governments need to do their part to get federal money to victims. That message apparently is aimed at leaders in Louisiana and New Orleans, where federal money for citizens to rebuild homes has not yet begun flowing.

So far, Congress has approved $110 billion in hurricane aid. The Bush administration has released $77 billion to the states, reserving the rest for future needs, but $33 billion of that has not yet been spent.

In Mississippi, Mr. Bush expressed hope that the $110 billion would be enough. "Hopefully that'll work," he said. "Hopefully that's enough."

Democratic members of the House Committee on Homeland Security released a report Monday recapping reports of allegedly wasteful recovery contracts by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and accusing the administration of an "approach to governance that was content to allow FEMA's crucial procurement office to operate at just a fraction of its necessary staffing level."

House Democrats, a dozen of whom toured Mississippi and Louisiana on Monday, plan a Wednesday announcement of their own recovery plan for the region.

"I think the American public is going to be very, very surprised to know this recovery is way, way behind what their expectations would have been," Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., adding that people in the city have "been living a real hell."

"It's hard to believe this is the United States," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

Clyburn and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., mentioned possible insurance reform to allow for what Schiff called "mega-catastrophes."