Bush first to visit Gulf Coast

President George W. Bush is making his first visit in three months to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast, where, his chief of staff says, there is still "great need indescribable need." White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said the Thursday trip to New Orleans and Mississippi was for Bush to see progress there firsthand and personally restate his commitment to rebuilding.

Bush was meeting with New Orleans business executives, then giving a speech on reconstruction in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. His message was that although recovery will be long and expensive, the federal government is in it for the long haul, said White House spokesman Trent Duffy. "The destruction down there looks like it just happened yesterday," Duffy said. "It's easy for people outside the region to forget the challenges they still face."

Card, speaking to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, said the Gulf Coast economy is struggling and only about half of the 90 million tons of debris from Hurricane Katrina in August has been cleared. In New Orleans, many neighborhoods are still abandoned wastelands, with uninhabitable homes, no working street lights and sidewalks piled with moldy garbage. The levee system is as vulnerable as ever. Barely a quarter of the 400,000 people who fled have come back, demographers estimate.

"While there has great progress, there continues to be great need, indescribable need," Card said. When New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin encouraged displaced residents in town hall meetings last month to come home, they asked why they should return without services or rebuilding plans in place.

Bush was meeting with a handful of business executives to tout a law he signed last fall giving them incentives to hire people and bring jobs back to the region. Don Powell, the top U.S. official for reconstruction, also was attending. Bush hasn't been to the coast since a trip to Louisiana and Mississippi Oct. 10-11. He was initially criticized for a slow federal response to the disaster, then made eight trips to the region in six weeks, and the White House hardly went a day without an event or mention of the challenges there, reports the AP. N.U.

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