US President George W. Bush pitched in to help with hurricane reconstruction efforts on Tuesday, nearly six weeks after being blasted for the slow federal response to the disaster.
On his eighth visit to the area hit by hurricanes Katrina and Rita last month, Bush, wearing a tool belt, hammered nails into boards for a Habitat for Humanity home in Covington, Louisiana, and visited an elementary school in Mississippi that has just reopened.
"It's a sign that out of the rubble here on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi is a rebuilding," Bush said after shaking hands and chatting with about 50 schoolchildren.
After the sluggish response to Katrina, Bush has repeatedly visited the region to show his concern and make sure it was prepared to deal with the second hurricane, Rita.
But the fallout from Katrina has taken its toll on his popularity. A CBS News poll last Friday found 52 percent of those surveyed did not approve of Bush's handling of the disaster.
"I think we've seen the spirits change. I mean, the storm hit, it was an overwhelming moment for a lot of people. And ... the local people are beginning to realize there's hope, there's a chance to rebuild lives," Bush told NBC's Today Show.
He spent Monday night at a luxury New Orleans hotel and had dinner in the French Quarter with local officials, including New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.
"I don't think Washington ought to dictate to New Orleans how to rebuild," Bush said he told them.
"My message to them was, we will support the plan that you develop. The point is, is that it comes from the local folks. And I recognize there's an attitude in Washington that says, we know better than the local people. That's just not the attitude I have."
A poll by the Pew Research Center found that events surrounding the hurricanes remained high in American interest, with 73 percent of the public saying they are following news of the storms' aftermath very closely.
Sixty five percent of Americans also said they were tracking the high price of gasoline, the poll found.
As he has in the past, Bush said if a congressional probe finds the federal government was at fault in the initial response to Katrina, he would accept responsibility.
Bush is also trying to cope with other challenges like the Iraq war and soaring gasoline prices, which have pushed his job approval ratings down to 37 percent, according to the CBS News poll.
Meanwhile, tests of the floodwater that filled New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina show lower levels of toxic chemicals than had been feared, researchers reported on Tuesday.
But they added that concern about the sediment remained.
The researchers, from Louisiana State University, found that the water had high levels of bacteria but that concentrations of other contaminants like heavy metals and chemicals from gasoline were no worse than what typically washed down a New Orleans street after a hard rain.
"Our study shed some good news on that," said the lead researcher, John Pardue, director of the Louisiana Water Resources Research Institute at LSU. "We were expecting to see much higher gasoline concentrations than what we saw."
The results, the first to appear in a scientifically peer-reviewed publication, are on the Web site of the journal Environmental Science and Technology (pubs.acs.org/journals/esthag/).