NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, (AFP) -President George W. Bush again took the blame for the government”s flawed response to Hurricane Katrina but promised one of the biggest rebuilding efforts the world has ever seen in the disaster zone.
As the US leader promised a drastic safety review for every US city, the New Orleans” mayor said residents could start returning to the stricken city this weekend.
"The system, at every level of government, was not well coordinated, and was overwhelmed in the first few days," Bush said in a prime-time speech to the nation from Jackson Square in New Orleans” historic French Quarter.
Setting out a recovery plan from the destructive August 29 storm for which the death toll reached 792 on Thursday, Bush said: "Four years after the frightening experience of September 11, Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency.
"When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I as president am responsible for the problem, and for the solution."
Bush ordered a sweeping review of disaster-response plans in every major US city. "I consider detailed emergency planning to be a national security priority," Bush said.
The president gave no detail how much on top of the 62 billion dollars alloted by Congress, but vowed: "The work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen."
Amid criticism of the treatment of New Orleans” poor blacks who made up the majority of the tens of thousands stranded in the city, Bush made a point of emphasizing that special help had to be given to African-Americans in the rebuilding.
With the cleanup gathering pace — though not all bodies found — New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin said business owners could start to return to the city from Saturday.
"The city of New Orleans, starting this weekend, will start to breathe again," Nagin told a press conference.
"We will have life. We will have commerce. We will have people getting back into their normal modes of operation."
He added that about 180,000 residents would start returning in a phased operation from Monday.
In a phased return, authorities would concentrate on the famed French Quarter and central districts as they bid to reopen the city and a dusk-to-dawn curfew would remain.
Nagin said hospitals and special food shops would be opened and he was confident power and water supplies would be ready, though he warned that in many places the water should not be drunk or used for washing.
The number of people in emergency shelters across the United States has fallen 30,000 in four days to 111,000, authorities said. And the army expressed confidence that an operation to drain floodwater from the streets would be finished by October 2, well ahead of the original schedule.
"It”s a good day in New Orleans," the mayor declared in an upbeat mood. "The sun is shining. We”re bringing New Orleans back."
Bush was back in the region for the fourth time since the storm, as his popularity plumbed new lows, to make his proposals to rebuild the disaster zone across Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Katrina has further damaged the US president”s standing, already hit by the Iraq war.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Thursday showed that just 40 percent of those interviewed approved of his overall performance as president, the lowest level since he took office in January 2001. Nearly 60 percent said they were unhappy with the Bush administration”s response to Hurricane Katrina.
Louisiana officials added 84 to the state”s toll taking it to 558 dead. In addition there have been 218 deaths in Mississippi, two in Alabama and 14 in Florida.
Nagin warned Wednesday that more hideous discoveries will come out of the search of abandoned houses as the flood waters recede.
Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti has pressed negligent homicide charges against two owners of a New Orleans nursing home, where the bodies of 34 people were found.
Another grim find of 45 corpses was made on Sunday at a New Orleans hospital and a special task force has been set up to investigate some of the deaths reported.
While New Orleans made faltering steps toward recovery, Hurricane Ophelia, the seventh of the hurricane season, inflicted floods and power cuts on about 100,000 people in North Carolina on the Atlantic coast.
But it eased as the day wore on and was downgraded to a tropical storm and was expected to head back out to sea.