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Bush visits storm-ravaged Gulf Coast to ease fears, push cleanup

NEW ORLEANS -- Surrounded by evidence of the incomplete recovery from Hurricane Katrina, President Bush yesterday tried to calm fears across the Gulf Coast that another monster storm could be lurking in the upcoming hurricane season.

''If there is one, the response will be as effective as possible," said Bush, whose administration has been faulted for a flawed response to Katrina that exacerbated the hurricane's destruction.

Sensitive to voters' anger over soaring gasoline prices, Bush also said he wants Congress to give the Transportation Department the power to increase auto fuel economy standards -- an idea proposed in an energy plan by Senate Republicans. The department has such authority over small trucks.

The 2006 hurricane season begins June 1, and Bush said his administration is working with local officials to make sure communications are clearer and supplies are effectively positioned in advance. Don Powell, Bush's liaison to hurricane relief efforts, said the restoration of New Orleans's levees to their pre-Katrina condition is expected to be completed by June 1.

Bush's comments, on his 11th visit to the Gulf Coast since Katrina struck in August, came as a seven-month Senate inquiry indicated the United States still was woefully unprepared for a storm of that scope. The Senate review followed a House investigation that was similarly critical of Bush and other top federal officials, and milder White House conclusions that blamed the Homeland Security Department for most of the breakdowns.

''We are far better prepared today than we were this time last year," said Frances Fragos Townsend, Bush's homeland security adviser. ''And we will be far better prepared by June 1." Bush said, ''All of us in positions of responsibility appreciate those who are helping us to understand how to do our jobs better."

Bush's trip to still-devastated Louisiana and Mississippi was intended to encourage volunteers to pitch in on the reconstruction effort. In New Orleans, the president stopped at a bungalow being restored by volunteers in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the city's majority-black neighborhoods that endured the storm's brunt and remain largely uninhabitable.

The street was piled high in places with trash. Government trailers that are the main housing for the displaced sat in many front yards. With less than half of the New Orleans pre-storm population back, few residents were evident. The president's motorcade parked in front of one of the city's many shuttered schools.

Ethel Williams, the owner of the duplex, thanked those who are gutting her house so she can return to her home from Texas. ''I'm proud that you're here, Mr. President, and I won't ever forget you," she said. The high-water mark from Katrina's flooding was visible, about one-third of the way up her home's single story.

From there, Bush went to a vacant lot where Habitat for Humanity is building 81 homes, several feet off the ground for protection against future floods, for New Orleans musicians. Bush put on work gloves and a carpenter's apron as he wandered around the construction site and chatted with workers. He, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin helped raise roof frames onto one house.

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