Bush visiting Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast

WASHINGTON – President Bush on Monday marked the anniversary of the hurricane that still haunts his presidency with worries that a new tropical storm could bring the first test of his promise that the botched post-Katrina response will not be repeated.

As Ernesto cut a path through the Caribbean, Bush boarded Air Force One for a two-day visit to the region that is little recovered from Hurricane Katrina’s devastating strike last Aug. 29. Forecasters believe Ernesto, which grew into the season’s first hurricane Sunday before weakening back to a tropical storm, will emerge with some force into the Gulf of Mexico later this week.

The latest tracking indicated the system would most threaten southern and western Florida, a predication that seemed to shift New Orleans out of the expected danger zone.

Regardless, with Bush’s image as a leader still tarnished by the halting federal response to Katrina, the president wants to make clear he has been fully engaged in planning for Ernesto as he vacationed over the weekend at his family’s summer home on the Maine coast. Aides noted he was briefed regularly and said White House representatives were coordinating with emergency management officials.

A poll earlier this month found two-thirds of Americans still disapprove of the president’s handling of Katrina. Democrats are converging on the Gulf along with Bush, intending to make the case that he and the Republican Party should be held accountable for failing storm victims, not just at first, but still.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said Bush’s promises of help for Katrina victims and changes to the federal response effort remain largely unfulfilled. He called Bush’s trip nothing more than a public relations offensive designed to paper over failures.

Bush’s trip is his 13th to the Gulf Coast since Katrina, and his first in more than three months. The highlights this time are a pair of speeches, one each in Mississippi and Louisiana.

He wasn’t bringing any new aid announcements or fresh policy proposals. Instead, the president was hoping the addresses would persuade local residents and doubters elsewhere that he remains committed to seeing the region rebuilt better than before.

On one matter that has become a subject of finger-pointing between Washington and the region, aides said Bush would stress that state and local governments need to do their part to get federal money to victims, an unmistakable jab at leaders in Louisiana and New Orleans, where federal money for citizens to rebuild homes has yet to begin flowing.

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