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WASHINGTON - Faced with the unprecedented destruction of a major U.S. city and communities across the Gulf Coast, President Bush with damaged New Orleans as his backdrop will offer a package of new federal aid to help uprooted hurricane victims.
Bush will announce a new reconstruction plan Thursday night during a televised address also aimed at mending his image as a strong leader in a time of crisis.
It is Bush's first formal prime-time speech during more than two weeks of suffering along the Gulf, with most of the victims chased out by floodwaters in New Orleans. Bush planned to speak from the heart of the French Quarter, while across the city officials were still working to pump out waters and collect bodies left behind.
Bush planned to show sympathy for the misery brought on by the killer storm while charting a hopeful vision for the future. Many people, including members of the president's party, have said he should have given that kind of speech soon after the hurricane made landfall along the coast on Aug. 29.
Presidential advisers drafting the speech were working on plans for legislation that would provide job training, education, housing, small business help and health care for people, said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. For instance, the advisers were discussing tax credits for businesses to stay in the devastated region, said a Republican official, who was consulted but wanted to remain anonymous because Bush had yet to deliver the speech.
Polling shows Americans are willing to pay to rebuild New Orleans. According to a CBS-New York Times poll released Wednesday, 73 percent expect their taxes will increase as a result of Katrina, and more than half said they were willing to pay more taxes to help with Katrina recovery, job training and housing for victims.
Rather than speak before a live audience, Bush planned to stand alone and broadcast his message directly into the camera from the evacuated city's historic Jackson Square, according to a White House official speaking on condition of anonymity since the site had not been announced.
The square and its most famed landmark, the St. Louis Cathedral, were on high enough ground to avoid flooding but did not escape damage from Katrina's 145-mph winds. Two massive oak trees outside the 278-year-old cathedral came out by the roots, ripping out a 30-foot section of ornamental iron fence and snapping off the thumb and forefinger of the outstretched hand on a marble statue of Jesus.
Bush was making a stop in Pascagoula, Miss., on the way to New Orleans for the speech. He was returning to the White House early Friday morning after delivering it, rather than spending the night in the region.
The format of the speech � Bush speaking alone to a national audience from a famous urban site � is reminiscent of his address from the front of the Statue of Liberty three years ago on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and Fox shuffled their Thursday schedules to air his remarks live. Bush planned to speak for a little over 20 minutes, beginning at precisely two minutes after 9 p.m. EDT to accommodate the broadcasters.
McClellan said Bush would describe new initiatives but would not announce the appointment of an official to oversee the recovery effort, as some GOP allies in Congress have urged. The president also was not attaching any specific dollar figure to the new programs, McClellan said.
Bush was to commit to meeting people's immediate needs and to supporting local ideas about how the new communities should look, McClellan said.
Bush also planned to acknowledge the role of poverty and "a long history of injustice" in the fact that the disaster affected many who could least afford it. The president was to urge that overcoming that history is key, and one way to ensure that the rebuilt communities that emerge are "stronger and better" than they ones they replace, McClellan 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 quicker if so many of the people stranded were not poor and black.
The perception of a sluggish response to the storm has led to the lowest approval ratings of Bush's presidency.
Bush, who prides himself on being a direct communicator, has struggled to convey a clear message since the storm hit. He began this week by dismissing questions about what went wrong as a "blame game." But on Tuesday, he said he took responsibility for any failures on the federal end.
The White House hoped that Bush's acceptance of responsibility and the commitment to rebuilding would help restore the public's faith in his leadership.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)