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Bush Assembles Disaster Assistance for Katrina Victims

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush said Thursday night the government will pay most of the costs of rebuilding the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast in one of the largest reconstruction projects the world has ever seen -- estimated to cost $200 billion or beyond. He acknowledged his administration had failed to respond adequately to the disaster.

"There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again," the president said in remarks prepared for an address to the nation.

Bush committed the federal government to covering "the great majority of the costs" of rebuilding critical infrastructure such as roads, bridges, schools and water systems wiped out by Hurricane Katrina.

"Our goal is to get the work done quickly," Bush said.

Trying to make up for a flawed disaster response that embarrassed his administration, Bush said he considers detailed emergency planning a "national security" priority.

Bush said Katrina "was not a normal hurricane -- and the normal disaster relief system was not equal to it."

Government must have clear, up-to-date plans for responding not only to natural disasters, but to outbreaks of disease and terrorist attacks, he said. Bush said the plans must encompass the evacuation of large numbers of people and providing adequate food, water and security.

"In a time of terror threats and weapons of mass destruction, the danger to our citizens reaches much wider than a fault line or a flood plain," the president said.

Bush was to announce his recovery plan in a nationally broadcast speech from Jackson Square in the heart of the French Quarter. Before flying to New Orleans, he stopped in Pascagoula, Miss., at the largest oil refinery shut down by the hurricane, a Chevron Corp. facility that suffered severe damage and is expected to remain off-line for months.

Bush was expected to call for legislation that would provide job training, education, housing, small business help and health care. The president also was expected to announce tax relief to encourage businesses to stay in the devastated region.

"The work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen," the president said in his prepared remarks. "When that job is done, all Americans will have something to be very proud of -- and all Americans are needed in this common effort."

Addressing the hundreds of thousands of evacuees forced from their homes by the hurricane, Bush said, "You need to know that our whole nation cares about you -- and in the journey ahead you are not alone."

Rebuilding across the devastated region is expected to cost $200 billion or more in the near term. The final tab could approach the more than $300 billion spent thus far on U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congress has already approved $62 billion for the disaster, but that is expected to run out next month.

Bush faced the nation at a vulnerable point in his presidency. Most Americans disapprove of his handling of Katrina, and his job-approval rating has been dragged down to the lowest point of his presidency also because of dissatisfaction with the Iraq war and rising gas prices. He has struggled to demonstrate the same take-charge leadership he displayed after the Sept. 11 terror attacks four years ago.

Bush offered the nation's thanks to all the rescue and aid workers who pitched in to help. "And tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes ... we will stay as long as it takes ... to help citizens rebuilding their communities and their lives."

He said Washington would forge a close partnership with Louisiana and Mississippi, the city of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities "so they can rebuild in a sensible, well-planned way." Bush said taxpayers expect the work "to be done honestly and wisely -- so we will have a team of inspector generals reviewing all expenditures."

After denying charges that blacks and poor people were forgotten in the search and recovery efforts, Bush planned to promise that needy people would get special attention in the reconstruction, officials said.

Black Americans have been particularly angered by the government response to the disaster, with an overwhelming majority telling pollsters they believe help would have come more quickly if so many of the people stranded were not poor and black.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush would talk about the need to act boldly to address "a long history of injustice that has led to poverty and inequality" in New Orleans and other areas. "It's a long history and it's not something we're going to overcome instantly."

The administration has promised to reimburse states for the costs incurred in housing hurricane evacuees. Texas alone has taken in an estimated 250,000 refugees from the flooding, an overwhelming majority of whom are believed to qualify for Medicaid.

AP Writer Nedra Pickler reported from Pascagoula, Miss., and New Orleans and Terence Hunt reported from Washington.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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