NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- Two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated coastal areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, residents say much of America has forgotten their plight.
President Bush and first lady Laura Bush pause for a moment of silence Wednesday at a New Orleans school.
But President Bush said Wednesday the federal government has been persistent in pushing recovery efforts.
"I would like them to know that we still need all the help and caring and volunteers. We need it bad. People don't realize. They just don't realize," Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, resident Linda Fallon said.
The beachfront communities of Bay St. Louis and Waveland, Mississippi, were nearly destroyed in Katrina's fury.
Two years later, one-third of Bay St. Louis residents haven't returned. Business has moved inland. Watch the struggle to rebuild in Mississippi »
"Without the people, we don't have a town. We don't have a city, we don't have a place apart," Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Favre said Tuesday. He predicted it would be at least seven years before the town is back to near-normal.
A longtime resident, Diane Bourgeois, has moved 15 miles inland to an apartment and said she doubts she will rebuild. Her home was razed.
When she asked why, she said, "I don't know, the memories. It will just never be the same. Can't risk it all again."
David MacDonald, pastor of Calvary Independent Baptist Church in Bay St. Louis, said, "We get crews coming down, but they are thinning out as the months go on.
"So it's trying to let the people know there is still a need down here, especially in the area of housing. And just the mental and spiritual needs that are down here -- just still overwhelming."
In New Orleans, Bush participated in a moment of silence at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology to remember Katrina victims. He said that the U.S. government hasn't forgotten the Gulf Coast and that federal efforts to make post-Katrina improvements to levees and infrastructure were unyielding.
"I hope people understand we're still paying attention. We understand," Bush said.
Eighty percent of the the $114 billion allocated to the region for Hurricane Katrina repairs has been disbursed, he said.
"We're still engaged," Bush said of federal agencies.
The president, in his 15th visit to the region since Katrina hit, called the school "a place of hope."
Bush said Katrina broke hearts but not "the spirit" of New Orleans citizens.
But he alluded to the challenges faced across the region, citing teachers who commuted 30 miles to teach at the school.
"This town is better today than it was yesterday," Bush said in praising the Gulf Coast rebuilding effort. But he said it would be even better tomorrow.
He urged people across the country to pitch in to help the recovery, whether through donations or volunteer efforts or even moving to the area and joining its work force.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said his city's population increase -- citing 4,000 to 7,000 people a month -- is a good indication of the progress made since Katrina hit.
On Wednesday, Nagin participated in the groundbreaking for a memorial to storm victims.
"We ring the bells for a city that is in recovery; we ring the bells for hope that the promise that was made at Jackson Square will become a reality and will restore confidence in government at all levels," Nagin said, referring to the scene of Bush's vow in 2005 that the government would help the city and region recover.
Katrina first made landfall on August 25 in South Florida as a Category 1 storm with maximum sustained winds of near 81 mph. At one point, after moving west into the Gulf of Mexico, it reached Category 5 status, with maximum sustained winds of nearly 173 mph before making landfall on the Gulf Coast.
Four days after its initial landfall, Katrina came ashore near Buras, Louisiana, as a Category 3 storm, with winds near 127 mph. Initial reports put the wind speed higher, but the National Weather Service later revised its statistics.
Water breached two levees in New Orleans at the 17th Street and Industrial Canals, flooding 80 percent of the historic city.
More than 1,800 people died in five states -- 1,577 of them in Louisiana.
Days after the storm, images of people stranded across the region -- particularly in New Orleans where horror stories emerged from the Louisiana Superdome -- led to outcries of an inadequate response from the government.
After supporting him in the days after the hurricane, Bush announced that Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, would resign September 12.
A special House of Representatives committee released a report in February 2006, saying the "response of government at all levels to Hurricane Katrina was "dismal," poorly planned and badly coordinated, showing that more than four years after the 9/11 attacks, "America is still not ready for prime time." E-mail to a friend
CNN's Kathleen Koch contributed to this report.