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Bush acknowledges frustrations in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - President George W. Bush faced new pressure to jump-start the recovery from Hurricane Katrina on Thursday as he toured the Gulf Coast region hit by the worst U.S. natural disaster.

President Bush greets Nellie Partridge, 84, on her front porch during a tour of rebuilt homes after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina during a visit to Long Beach, Mississippi, March 1, 2007. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Eighteen months after the 2005 hurricane, analysts say tens of thousands of people remain displaced and more than half of the schools in the New Orleans area are still closed, a grim reminder of the toll on the region.

“I certainly understand that there are frustrations and I want to know the frustrations. To the extent we can, we’ll help,” Bush said as he sat down to lunch with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and other elected officials at a Creole restaurant near the French Quarter.

Wayne Baquet, owner of the Lil Dizzy’s Cafe, said it was important for Bush to sound the message that government red tape must be overcome: “Very important that he makes noise about it because it’s taking too long to get to the people.”

Bush toured New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi on his first trip to the area in six months. It was his 14th visit overall to check on relief efforts that were roundly denounced for being too slow at the start.

Bush acknowledged government red tape was one thing holding up $33 billion of the $110 billion aid package approved for Katrina rebuilding by the U.S. Congress.

“If it is stuck because of unnecessary bureaucracy, our responsibility at the federal, state and local level is to unstick it, is to make sure that it keeps moving,” Bush said at the Samuel J. Green Charter School, which was flooded by Katrina, used as a shelter and is now a school again.

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A report by the Institute of Southern Studies said the Gulf Coast is still in crisis, with more than half the schools in New Orleans still closed, and the region’s recovery has been stalled due to a lack of housing, jobs and other basic needs.

“President Bush and the new congressional leadership have all said Katrina and the Gulf Coast are still a top priority. It’s time for them to live up to their promises and responsibility and help rebuild the Gulf South,” said Chris Kromm, a spokesman for the group.

Democratic leaders of the U.S. Congress said they were trying to speed the recovery by pressing for action.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat and the lieutenant governor’s sister, called on Bush to waive a state and local matching requirement she said was slowing reconstruction projects in the region.

Bush could waive the requirement, as has been done in previous disasters including the September 11 attacks, “with a single stroke of the pen,” she said, adding that Congress would act if he did not.

The No. 3 Democrat in the House of Representatives, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, said Democrats had urged Bush several times to waive the matching requirement.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, “We are weighing the merits of the proposal.”

If Bush doesn’t act, Democrats plan to add the waiver along with other disaster relief measures to a $100 billion emergency spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that Congress is expected to take up soon.

Additional reporting by Donna Smith in Washington