WASHINGTON — President Bush strapped on a tool belt Tuesday and pounded nails at a home-building project for Louisiana hurricane victims as his administration announced steps intended to improve the recovery effort.
Before starting his brief work shift, Bush denounced critics who have accused him of staging politically motivated "photo ops" in the hurricane zone instead of staying in Washington and drafting a comprehensive recovery plan.
"We've got people here who volunteered their time, from all over the country, and they didn't say ... 'I'm a Democrat and I'm going to work here,' or 'I'm a Republican and I'm going to work here,' " Bush said in an NBC "Today" show interview broadcast from a Habitat for Humanity project in Covington, La.
"I think our job is to elevate this whole process out of normal politics," he said.
First Lady Laura Bush joined the president at the lots where two houses are being built for low-income Louisianans left homeless by Hurricane Katrina.
"This is really, really important," she said. "It's very American to step out and help."
Critics of Bush's travel to the Gulf Coast include Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), whose office issued a news release Tuesday accusing Bush of conducting a "photo-op presidency" while failing to plan for reconstruction of the devastated area.
After the TV interview, the president and first lady joined workers at the Habitat project. Bush donned a hard hat, work gloves and a leather tool belt that held a hammer. The first lady wore a cloth nail pouch around her waist. After hammering a few nails into a sheet of plywood, the Bushes chatted, signed autographs and posed for photos with Habitat volunteers.
The president, who was on the second day of a two-day visit to Louisiana and Mississippi, also met with delegations of local, state and federal officials, spoke to U.S. troops participating in the emergency response and attended the reopening of an elementary school.
"Out of this rubble is going to come some good," Bush told military personnel at Belle Chasse Naval Air Station near New Orleans. "Out of this devastation is going to come new cities and new hope."
It was Bush's eighth trip to the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans on Aug. 29, submerging the city and displacing more than 1 million residents of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The trips are part of a continuing White House campaign to demonstrate the president's personal involvement in the recovery after widespread criticism that he was slow to engage in the issue and that the federal government's initial emergency response was mismanaged.
In Washington, administration officials announced plans to increase the participation of small and minority-owned businesses in the Katrina cleanup work.
Responding to complaints that the first round of recovery contracts favored big firms from outside the hurricane area, officials said the Federal Emergency Management Agency would establish numerical targets for small and minority-owned businesses in subsequent rounds of contracts put out for competitive bids.
The specific targets have not been set, said Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, but they were expected to be higher than the 1.5% of contract awards received by small and minority firms.
"This administration is reaching out to companies of all sizes, especially minority-owned enterprises, to guarantee that those seeking to join the rebuilding efforts can navigate federal agencies and bid for contracts with ease," Gutierrez said.
On Capitol Hill, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) proposed legislation to create a federal agency to oversee the federal reconstruction effort in the hurricane region. Its director would report to the president and would be subject to Senate confirmation.
"While we continue to provide much-needed assistance in federal resources, we must provide an accountable structure for ensuring that these taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and in a systematic way," Gregg said in a statement.
Congress has appropriated $62 billion to help pay for the recovery effort, and Bush has said more will be required.
Times wire services were used in compiling this report.