Bush vows better disaster response

NEW ORLEANS - One year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, President George W. Bush returned to the jazz city and promised the federal government would do better if another disaster hit.

He said New Orleans had survived fire, war and epidemics, and always came back "louder, brasher and better," and that he saw the same resolve this time.

"It's always been a city of second chance," Bush said.

Bush again assumed "full responsibility" for the federal government's slow response to the disaster, which pushed his popularity to new lows and raised questions about his leadership.

His administration has struggled to overcome the images of a city 80 per cent under water, and residents - stranded on rooftops and jammed in the Convention Centre - pleading for food and water.

"A year ago, I made a pledge that we will learn the lessons of Katrina and that we will do what it takes to help you recover," he told residents. "We looked at what went right and what went wrong, and we're addressing that which went wrong."

"If there is another natural disaster, we'll respond in better fashion," Bush said.

Democrats, who are hoping to seize control of the US Congress in November, sought to highlight Katrina failures.

"For the people of the Gulf Coast who survived Hurricane Katrina, this is more than a 'one year anniversary.' It's a hole they're still trying to dig themselves out of with too little help from the federal government," said Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat Bush defeated in 2004.

Bush noted federal aid to the region has reached $110 billion (58 billion pounds), though there have been complaints it has been slow to reach victims.

Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, former commander of military relief operations after Katrina, said the need for accountability had slowed the flow after some of the money given out quickly after Katrina ended up in wrong hands.

"This thing's going to happen, but the bureaucracy is there for a purpose and it never moves fast enough," he said.

At a breakfast meeting with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin at Betsy's Pancake House, Bush was asked in passing by waitress Joyce Labruzzo, "Mr. President, are you going to turn your back on me?"

"No ma'am," Bush replied with a laugh. "Not again."

He later visited legendary musician Fats Domino's house in the lower Ninth Ward that was among the hardest hit neighbourhoods. He gave the musician a new National Medal of Arts signed by former President Bill Clinton to replace the one lost in the hurricane.

He attended a Katrina service at St. Louis Cathedral, a historic landmark in the heart of the French Quarter. It overlooks Jackson Square where Bush addressed the nation September 15 and promised the city would rise again.

- REUTERS

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