WASHINGTON — Louisiana’s senior senator on Sunday escalated the Democrats’ rhetoric against the Bush administration’s hurricane response. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., accused the White House of a “full court press” to blame state and local officials for the initial sluggish rescue effort.
The government’s emergency managers came under fire from the lone black senator, Democrat Barack Obama, who said they were clueless about the inner-city in New Orleans when they failed to plan for the evacuation of poor people.
The White House sought to deflect criticism ahead of President Bush’s third trip to the stricken Gulf Coast, saying blame could be assessed later.
“It’s not the time for blame. It’s the time for helping the people on the ground that have been severely impacted by Hurricane Katrina,” White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said. “We’ll continue to provide aid and assistance to those who have been severely impacted.”
Landrieu said officials at all levels eventually would share blame for an inadequate response, but she cited only the administration for the finger-pointing that followed the killer storm.
“While the president is saying that he wants to work together as a team, I think the White House operatives have a full court press on to blame state and local officials whether they’re Republicans or Democrats. It’s very unfortunate,” she told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
She said Washington was obligated to support local and state officials, “particularly in times of tragedy and stress, not to pile on them, not to make their suffering worse.”
GOP senator: Relief gets ‘failing grade’
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said on ‘Fox News Sunday” he would give “the entire big government organized relief effort a failing grade, across the board.” But, he added that state and local governments shared in the blame, too.
Landrieu’s office said the senator based her accusation in part on comments by the Homeland Security chief, Michael Chertoff, and by administration allies on Capitol Hill, who cited the responsibility of state and local officials in planning for and responding to disasters. She also cited several news stories about a White House campaign to deflect criticism.
Obama was asked on ABC’s “This Week” whether there was racism in the lack of evacuation planning for poor, black residents of New Orleans. He said he would not refer to the government response in that way, but said there was a much deeper, long-term neglect.
“Whoever was in charge of planning was so detached from the realities of inner city life in New Orleans ... that they couldn’t conceive of the notion that they couldn’t load up their SUV’s, put $100 worth of gas in there, put some sparkling water and drive off to a hotel and check in with a credit card,” Obama said.
Obama laments ‘historic indifference’
“There seemed to be a sense that this other America was somehow not on people’s radar screen. And that, I think, does have to do with historic indifference on the part of government to the plight of those who are disproportionately African-American.” He added that “passive indifference is as bad as active malice.”
The House Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., proposed an independent commission to watch for contractor scams in hurricane repairs.
“Already we have seen despicable stories of those trying to profit off desperate Gulf Coast residents,” she said. Her plan would investigate waste and fraud as soon as contracts are awarded.
Bush pledges a ‘more vibrant’ Gulf Coast
In his weekly Saturday radio address, President Bush said Americans will come together and make the Gulf Coast “more vibrant than ever,” just as they rebuilt after the devastation brought by terrorist attacks four years ago this weekend.
“Even in the deepest darkness, we can see the light of hope, and the light shows us the way forward,” he said. “We will honor the memory of those we have lost; we will comfort the victims of Katrina; and we will make the Gulf Coast more vibrant than ever.”
Bush marked the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks by remembering the victims of that tragedy and Hurricane Katrina.
“Our greatest resource in such times is the compassionate character of the American people, because even the most destructive storm cannot weaken the heart and soul of our nation,” the president said in his address. “America will overcome this ordeal, and we will be stronger for it.”
Harsh criticism from Democrats
Democrats said Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress did not learn a painful lesson of Sept. 11 — America must be ready for disaster. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, in the Democratic party radio address, said victims of the hurricane are suffering because the government was unprepared.
“This year, Republicans in Congress cut first-responder homeland security programs by $604 million, and an additional cut of $1.1 billion was requested by the president for fiscal year 2006,” Thompson said.
Video: Determined to rebuild “This is funding for resources on the local level to defend our families, protect our communities and respond during times of crisis. Diminishing the ability of our sheriffs, police, firefighters and all first responders to get the job done is simply unacceptable.
“We need a real citizen preparedness plan — one that takes care of children, the elderly and the disabled,” Thompson said. “Mothers and grandmothers should not drown in nursing homes because help never arrived.”
Bush did not note widespread complaints about government handling of the disaster, instead calling on Americans to help with recovery by contacting the USA Freedom Corps volunteer network.
He said he signed spending bills this week that will provide an additional $52 billion for response and recovery and called for special evacuee status for people in the disaster areas so they can more easily collect federal benefits.
Bush links Sept. 11, Katrina
Bush often talks about Sept. 11 when he is under public scrutiny, and Sunday’s anniversary was a natural occasion to reminisce about the attacks as he faces criticism for a slow government response to the hurricane and subsequent flooding. In his radio address, he drew similarities to the two catastrophes that hit the United States four years apart.
“Today, America is confronting another disaster that has caused destruction and loss of life,” the president said in his Saturday broadcast. “This time the devastation resulted not from the malice of evil men, but from the fury of water and wind.”
Bush’s plans for Sunday’s anniversary include a memorial church service and moment of silence at the White House before he makes his third trip to the states hit by the hurricane.
“Four years later, Americans remember the fears and uncertainty and confusion of that terrible morning,” he said. “But above all, we remember the resolve of our nation to defend our freedom, rebuild a wounded city, and care for our neighbors in need.
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