WASHINGTON — President Bush said Tuesday that "I take responsibility" for failures in dealing with Hurricane Katrina and that the disaster raised broader questions about the government's ability to respond to natural disasters as well as terror attacks.
"Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government," Bush said at joint White House news conference with the president of Iraq.
"To the extent the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility," Bush said.
The president was asked whether people should be worried about the government's ability to handle another terrorist attack given failures in responding to Katrina.
"Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack? That's a very important question and it's in the national interest that we find out what went on so we can better respond," Bush replied.
He said he wanted to know both what went wrong and what went right.
Defending the heroes, not the process
As for blunders in the federal response, "I'm not going to defend the process going in," Bush said. "I am going to defend the people saving lives."
He praised relief workers at all levels. "I want people in America to understand how hard people worked to save lives down there," he said.
Bush spoke after R. David Paulison, the new acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, pledged to intensify efforts to find more permanent housing for the tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors now in shelters.
It was the closest Bush has come to publicly finding fault with any federal officials involved in the hurricane response, which has been widely criticized as disjointed and slow. Some federal officials have sought to fault state and local officials for being unprepared to cope with the disaster.
Bush planned to address the nation Thursday evening from Louisiana, where he will be monitoring recovery efforts, the White House announced earlier Tuesday.
Getting survivors the help they need
Paulison, in his first public comments since taking the job on Monday, told reporters: "We're going to get those people out of the shelters, and we're going to move and get them the help they need."
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff introduced Paulison as the Bush administration tried to deflect criticism for the sluggish initial federal response to the hurricane and its disastrous aftermath.
Chertoff said that while cleanup, relief and reconstruction from Katrina is now the government's top priority, the administration would not let down its guard on other potential dangers.
"The world is not going to stop moving because we are very focused on Katrina," Chertoff said.
Paulison, named to the post on Monday, said he was busy "getting brought up to speed."
He replaced Michael Brown, who resigned on Monday, three days after being removed from being the top onsite federal official in charge of the government's response.
Paulison said Bush called him Monday night and "thanked me for coming on board."
Bush promised that he would have "the full support of the federal government," Paulison said.
The next part of the operation
Chertoff said the relief operation had entered a new phase.
Initially, he said, the most important priority was evacuating people, getting them to safety, providing food, water and medical care.
"And then ultimately at the end of the day, we have to reconstitute the communities that have been devastated," Chertoff added.
He said the federal government would look increasingly to state and local officials for guidance on rebuilding the devastated communities along the Gulf Coast.
"The federal government can't drive permanent solutions down the throats of state and local officials," Chertoff said. "I don't think anyone should envision a situation in which they're going to take a back seat. They're going to take a front seat," he said.
Properly divvying up public money
Chertoff said that teams of federal auditors were being dispatched to the stricken areas to make sure that billions of dollars worth of government contracts were being properly spent. "We want to get aid to people who need it quickly, but we also don't want to lose sight of the importance of preserving the integrity of the process and our responsibility as stewards of the public money," Chertoff said.
"We're going to cut through red tape," he said, "but we're not going to cut through laws and rules that govern ethics."
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that some military aircraft and other equipment may be able to move out of the Gulf Coast soon.
"We've got to the point where most if not all of the search and rescue is completed," said Rumsfeld, who is attending a NATO meeting in Berlin. "Some helicopters can undoubtedly be moved out over the period ahead."
He also said there is a very large surplus of hospital beds in the region, so those could also be decreased. The USS Comfort hospital ship arrived near the Mississippi coast late last week. Rumsfeld added that nothing will be moved out of the area without the authorization of the two states' governors, the military leaders there and the president.
148 injuries in the last two days
Elsewhere, workers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aren't finding many sick people, even though the specter of diseases has alarmed relief and rescue figures. Instead, between 40 and 50 percent of patients seeking emergency care have injuries. The CDC has counted 148 injuries in just the last two days, Carol Rubin, an agency hurricane relief specialist, said by telephone from the government's new public health headquarters in New Orleans' Kindred Hospital.
While she couldn't provide a breakdown, Rubin said they saw injuries and carbon monoxide exposure from generators are among them. Those are particularly worrisome because they're likely to become more common as additional hurricane survivors re-enter the city in coming days, she said.
The message: Those injuries are preventable, if people take proper precautions, Rubin stressed.
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