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Democrats, Bush make anniversary visits to Gulf Coast

As the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina neared, House Democrats toured devastated areas of New Orleans on Monday and decried the slow pace of recovery, while President Bush began a two-day visit to the region.

“I think the American public is going to be very, very surprised to know this recovery is way, way behind what their expectations would have been,” Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said during a tour that took more than a dozen Democratic members of Congress through the Ninth Ward, to the site of a levee breach and to the former downtown department store that now houses a clinic from the flooded-out Charity Hospital.

Katrina hit a year ago Tuesday, flooding 80 percent of New Orleans, devastating the southeastern Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf coasts and killing more than 1,800 people.

In New Orleans, only about half of the pre-storm population of 455,000 is back. Vast stretches of the city remain a wasteland, particularly the low-income Lower Ninth Ward.

“It’s hard to believe this is the United States,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

The Democrats planned a Wednesday announcement of their recovery plan for the region.

The Democratic visitors did not take direct slaps at the Bush administration Monday, but the visit comes as their party tries to make the case that Bush and the Republican Party have failed storm victims. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who was not part of the group visiting the coast, said Bush’s promises of help for Katrina victims and changes to the federal response effort remain largely unfulfilled.

A telephone message left for a spokeswoman with the Republican National Committee was not immediately returned Monday.

Democratic members of the House Committee on Homeland Security released a report Monday recapping reports of allegedly wasteful recovery contracts by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and accusing the administration of an “approach to governance that was content to allow FEMA’s crucial procurement office to operate at just a fraction of its necessary staffing level.”

Congressional Democrats in New Orleans on Monday said the government could do more to help those affected by the hurricane. Clyburn and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., mentioned possible insurance reform to allow for what Schiff called “mega-catastrophes.”

For a year, Clyburn said, people in the city have “been living a real hell.”

Congress approved $110 billion in hurricane aid since Katrina; only a portion of that has been spent. The Bush administration has released $77 billion to the states, reserving the rest for future needs.

At the rate the recovery is going, Schiff said, he expects it will be a decade before some hurricane-affected communities come back.

The group of Democratic congressmen traveled to Bay St. Louis, Miss., on Monday evening to attend a town hall forum to discuss the insurance industry’s handling of Katrina claims. The meeting was hosted by Gene Taylor, D-Miss., who is one of hundreds of homeowners on the Gulf Coast suing his insurance company for denying claims after the storm.

Taylor said insurance companies should be required to offer “all-peril” policies. He added that he’s worried many people will ride out future storms at home so they can document wind versus water damage.

“We now know that only the people who are eyewitnesses got any justice,” Taylor said.

David Treutel Jr., an independent insurance agent, spoke at the town hall meeting and said Katrina had “brought out the best and the worst” in insurance companies.

“To paint all insurance companies and all adjusters into one category,” he said, “would not be accurate or fair.”