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Susan Walsh, Associated Press
R. David Paulison, acting director of FEMA, left, greets President Bush in New Orleans. With them are New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

NEW ORLEANS — Vowing that this waterlogged virtual ghost town will rise again, President Bush pledged on Thursday night an unprecedented federal response to Hurricane Katrina that he said should include tax breaks for businesses, help for the displaced poor and revamped evacuation plans for the future.

In a nationally televised address from the historic French Quarter, Bush sought to reassure Americans and especially the victims of Hurricane Katrina, many of whom criticized the initial rescue efforts, that Washington will be bold in the recovery job.

"We will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives," he said. "There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again."

The president said that federal funds would cover the great majority of the costs of repairing infrastructure, including roads, bridges, schools and water systems. He called the undertaking "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen."

Bush, however, provided no cost estimate for the endeavor. Congress has already approved $62 billion, making Katrina the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history. Total expenses could reach $200 billion, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., told the Wall Street Journal last week, a figure that would rival the total spent so far on the Iraq war.

Bush acknowledged that the emergency response to the devastation from the hurricane was disorganized and that responders were overwhelmed. His speech, delivered from Jackson Square, a popular tourist destination next to the Mississippi River, comes as national polls show public approval of his job performance reaching new lows and ratings for his leadership ability, once considered the president's strong point, also dropping.

A CBS/New York Times poll released Thursday showed 51 percent of Americans are uneasy with Bush's ability to make decisions about the hurricane. Forty-six percent expressed confidence in his ability.

Most of the New Orleans residents who were stranded in the horrific aftermath of the storm are black, and on Thursday night the president noted that the hurricane has exposed poverty in the Gulf Coast region.

"That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America . . . ," he said. "So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday and let us rise above the legacy of inequality."

To remedy the problems, Bush offered some of the "compassionate conservative" agenda that he stressed during his first presidential campaign but which has lately been overshadowed by the war in Iraq and other White House priorities such as the use of private retirement accounts under Social Security.

Bush in his speech proposed giving tax incentives to businesses, including those owned by minorities, that open in disaster areas in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

He recommended setting up $5,000 accounts that evacuees could draw on for job training and child care expenses when they look for work. He also proposed providing property on federal land where low income people could build homes.

Bush said that because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the government should have done a better job in developing disaster response.

"When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I as president am responsible for the problem, and for the solution," he said, extending a personal theme he unveiled this week.

Although some lawmakers have voiced concern about rebuilding a city that sits below sea level, Bush said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would work with state officials to strengthen the levee system that was built to protect New Orleans.

Bush struck an optimistic tone about the future of the devastated region.

"Every time, the people of this land have come back from fire, flood and storm to build anew," he said.

The president delivered the address standing at a lectern with the St. Louis Cathedral as a backdrop. With much of the region still without electricity, the White House provided its own generators and lighting.

Finis Shelnutt, who owns a building that houses the Alex Patout's restaurant in the French Quarter, watched the speech on a small battery-powered television as he sat outside at a table with a white linen cloth, a bottle of Schramsberg champagne and a beer.

"This is a powerful speech," he said. "What I'm concerned about is that some of the programs he mentioned need to be monitored closely. New Orleans has a reputation for funding disappearing."

Marine Corps Capt. Jason Smith, who has relatives in Houston, said, "What I took from it is that America always bounces back. It is time to stop pointing fingers and get to work with the rebuilding."

But Jimmy Delery, a local man who watched the speech with Shelnutt, was less impressed:

"(Bush) could have done this from Washington. Coming here has inconvenienced people and taken away resources from the recovery."

As Bush talked about massive reconstruction efforts, Delery responded, "I guess that is where Halliburton comes in," a reference to the company once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney that is rebuilding Iraq.

Bush's call for a massive federal involvement in hurricane recovery and rebuilding efforts has prompted concern among Republicans, who fear uncontrolled spending and deficits.

"We have already spent more than enough to take care of the fundamentals," said Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, who voted for the first $62 billion in aid.

"If the president submits another (spending) supplemental to Congress, I don't know that I'm necessarily going to vote for it. I'm very concerned that the money we are pouring into this will exceed the actual need," he added.

Many conservatives have suggested that Congress look for ways to cut or redirect federal spending to pay for hurricane relief.

David Boaz, vice president of the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, said fiscal conservatives are likely to be outraged by the president's call for a strong federal role in rebuilding, but that approach is in keeping with Bush's approach to governing.

"Bush is a big government president," said Boaz, noting that the president has championed expansion of Medicare and presided over increased federal spending.

Bush been also under fire from by congressional Democrats, who Thursday released what they called their "Marshall Plan" to rebuild and restore the Gulf Coast.

The Democratic plan calls for funds to help victims of Katrina with emergency housing, health care and education assistance.

Democrats have objected to GOP plans for a congressional committee to investigate the federal response to the hurricane and say that an objective probe can only be done by an independent commission.

And Democratic lawmakers have also criticized Bush for waiving a number of federal regulations in the Gulf region, including the Davis Bacon Act, which requires federal contractors to pay prevailing wages.

"The gulf region does not deserve to be treated as a laboratory for political opportunism or ideological experimentation," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.


Contributing: Samantha Levine