WASHINGTON — President Bush said Wednesday that his administration was moving quickly to save lives and provide sustenance to uncounted victims of Hurricane Katrina, but that it "will take years" to recover from the storm that laid waste to the Gulf Coast.
"We're dealing with one of the worst national disasters in our nation's history," Bush said at a news conference hours after an aerial tour of the area.
"This is going to be a difficult road," he added, and made it clear the impact could broaden well past the four states along the battered coast.
"Our citizens must understand this storm has disrupted the capacity to make gasoline and to distribute gasoline," the president said.
Run-down of actions
Flanked by senior members of his administration, Bush ran down a list of actions already taken to help victims of the storm.
He said, for example, buses were on the way to help take thousands of storm refugees from the overwhelmed Superdome in New Orleans to the Astrodome in Houston.
Medical teams had been deployed, as have search-and-rescue teams, the president said.
The Coast Guard had already rescued nearly 2,000 people, he added.
Bush said the Pentagon as well was contributing to the rescue and relief operations, and said he had instructed Energy Secretary Sam Bodman to work with refineries to "alleviate any shortage through loans."
In addition to the government's efforts, Bush encouraged Americans to donate money to help recovery efforts.
Bush cut short his working vacation in Texas by two days to fly over the devastated region.
His plane flew over New Orleans at about 2,500, and it descended even further, to about 1,700 feet, over Mississippi. Bush surveyed the damage from a couch near the left front of the plane.
The plane flew over New Orleans, then traveled along the coast to Mobile, Miss., before turning north toward Washington.
“It’s totally wiped out,” Bush remarked as the modified Boeing 747 moved east past Slidell, a Louisiana community reduced to a pile of rubble and sticks.
“It’s devastating, it’s got to be doubly devastating on the ground,” Bush said, according to his spokesman Scott McClellan.
President's personal imprint
Even so, Bush expressed optimism upon his return to the White House, in words directed at the victims of the storm who had lost their homes, possessions and employment.
"I'm confident that with time you'll get your life back in order, new communities will flourish, the great city of New Orleans will get back on its feet and America will be a stronger place for it," he said.
Bush stepped to the microphones to put a personal imprint on efforts his administration is making to cope with the disaster in the Gulf Coast.
"Truckloads of water, ice, meals, medical supplies, generators, tents and tarpaulins" are loaded aboard 1,700 trailer trucks in an initial emergency response, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said at a news conference.
He pledged a "full range of federal resources" -- a list that ran from bridge inspection and repair to restoration of communications networks to mosquito abatement in a region with vast stretches underwater.
Hardship will persist
At the same time, officials warned of continuing hardships across an area laid waste by the powerful storm.
Michael Leavitt, secretary of Health and Human Services, announced that he had declared a public health emergency in the area stretching from Louisiana to Florida. "We are gravely concerned about the potential for cholera, typhoid and dehydrating diseases that could come as a result of the stagnant water and the conditions," he said.
Chertoff and Leavitt spoke at a news conference attended by an unusual array of department and agency heads, each of whom came equipped with a list of actions already taken by the administration.
In addition to steps designed to alleviate the suffering of victims, the administration moved to cushion the impact the storm might have on the nation's oil supply.
Bush signed off on a plan to release oil from emergency stockpiles, a decision intended to offset the loss of production from Gulf Coast refiners.
Temporary waiver for pollution standards
At the same time, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson announced a temporary nationwide waiver of certain pollution standards covering gasoline and diesel fuels.
Johnson had issued the waiver for the four storm-damaged Gulf states on Tuesday but said the broader move was necessary "to ensure that fuel is available throughout the country, to address public health issues and emergency vehicle supply needs."
Additionally, Energy Secretary Samuel E. Bodman said the Transportation Department had waived rules governing trucker hours, a step he said would increase the supply of gasoline.
Overall, "the first stage is, of course, life saving," said Chertoff, who emerged as the administration's point man on the disaster response.
Additionally, he said the administration had already shipped 13.4 million liters of water, 10,000 tarps, 3.4 million pounds of ice and 144 generators.
He said the second phase of the administration's response would be to restore "at least minimal transportation infrastructure to the region."
Efforts are under way to clear roads and inspect bridges, establish communications and expand operations at airports, he added.
"We are also looking at maritime assets that we can deploy to New Orleans to re-establish port operations there," he said.
Longer term, Chertoff said, will be the rebuilding efforts.
That seemed a long time off for those who have lost their homes and personal possessions and have been living without adequate food, shelter or sanitation since the hurricane blew ashore early Monday.
The scope of the effort cut across the government:
- The Transportation Department dispatched more than 400 trucks to move 5.4 million MREs, or ready-to-eat meals; 13.4 million liters of water; 10,400 tarps; 4,900 rolls of plastic sheeting; 3.4 million pounds of ice; 10 mobile homes; 144 generators; 20 containers of disaster supplies; 135,000 blankets; 11,000 cots; 200 tables; 450 chairs; 1 all-terrain vehicle; 19 forklifts and three 100-person and nine 50-person field office kits to flood damaged areas for FEMA.
- Eighteen Urban Search and Rescue task forces and two Incident Support Teams have been deployed and prepositioned in Shreveport, La., and Jackson, Miss., including teams from Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. An additional eight swift water rescue teams have been deployed, FEMA said.
- The number of people rescued or assisted by the Coast Guard climbed to 1,250.
- The Defense Department's Transportation Command was flying eight swift-water rescue teams from California to Lafayette, La.
- These teams will provide approximately 14 highly trained personnel with vehicles and small rigid-hulled boats capable of rescuing stranded citizens from flooded areas.
- USS Bataan sailed to the waters off Louisiana to provide support. Four helicopters from the Bataan were flying medical evacuation and search and rescue missions in Louisiana. Bataan's hospital may also be used for medical support.
- The hospital ship USNS Comfort was leaving Baltimore to bring medical assistance capabilities to the Gulf region, and should arrive in seven days.
- The Health and Human Services Department said 250 mobile hospital beds and associated equipment have arrived at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Thirty-eight Public Health Service officers are at the facility and along with disaster medical assistance teams and State health care professionals.
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