President Bush on Thursday acknowledged the deep frustration of Hurricane Katrina victims and said the federal government shares the blame for the slow recovery of the Gulf Coast.

He gave residents of the battered region a message: “The federal government still knows you exist.”

In stops across coastal Mississippi and Louisiana, Bush defended the federal allotment of $110 billion in relief aid. Of that total, less than half has been spent.

“If it is stuck because of unnecessary bureaucracy, our responsibility at the federal, state and local level is to unstick it,” Bush said at Samuel J. Green Charter School, which recovered from flooding.

In his first visit to the region in six months, Bush sought to fight the perception that those whose lives were devastated by the August 2005 storm had fallen off his agenda.

The Bush administration’s initial response to the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history was widely seen as a failure.

And the president is still dogged by criticism. Democratic lawmakers are pushing for more action.

“I committed to the people of this part of the world and the Gulf Coast that the federal government would fund recovery — and stay committed to the recovery,” Bush said during his 14th trip to the region. It was his first visit since the one-year anniversary of the storm.

Much of New Orleans outside the tourist areas remains in shambles. Violent crime has soared and health care is limited. Many residents are thinking of getting out for good.

On the outskirts of the French Quarter, Bush had lunch at Li’l Dizzy’s Cafe with Louisiana officials. Sitting next to him was New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who has been outspoken in demanding a better federal response. Bush later lauded Nagin as a strong-willed leader.

Exasperated officials from the region said it was telling that Katrina did not get a mention in Bush’s State of the Union speech in January.

“If you don’t get New Orleans straight, the United States will never be the same,” said Wayne Baquet, who owns the cafe where Bush ate. It was flooded and looted during Katrina.

Baquet said he worried the nation no longer was paying attention to New Orleans. “Everybody ought to be on the bandwagon trying to get New Orleans back,” he said. “Everybody.”

In Washington, some Democrats criticized Bush for not intervening more often.

“Long-term recovery for the Gulf Coast requires a whole lot more than 18 months of empty promises,” said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. “Businesses that were once the heart of the Gulf Coast economy are now hanging on by a thread.”

Kerry said legislation offering tax breaks to encourage businesses to build or expand in areas hit by hurricane was a good first step. But, he said, the government’s disaster loan program needs to be overhauled, fixing problems that have prevented businesses from getting timely financial assistance.

At the charter school, Bush delighted math and science students by popping into their classes. They didn’t mind the interruption and raced to his side for group photos.

Bush began his trip in Mississippi by touring five homes in a Long Beach neighborhood. He gave an American flag to Ernie and Cheryl Woodward, who rebuilt their home with the help of a federal grant.

“People’s lives are improving, and there is hope,” he said.

Bush got a friendly reception as he walked from house to house in the southern Mississippi neighborhood.

“Staying busy?” he asked a construction crew. One of the workers told him the crew was still working on the same block of the neighborhood a year and a half after the storm.

The federal official overseeing recovery efforts said Katrina’s damage was so vast that it was hard to estimate when the recovery will be completed. Of $110 billion in relief aid that Congress has approved, $86 billion has been committed to projects, and $53 billion has been spent.

“We all have a sense of urgency,” Don Powell, Bush’s coordinator for the Gulf Coast recovery, told reporters on Air Force One.

“But I think it’s important to put it in perspective about the size of the storm, and how overwhelming this storm was,” Powell said. “I think there’s been some good progress.”

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press

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