NEW ORLEANS — Passing by massive piles of debris left by Hurricane Katrina, President Bush pledged Tuesday that he will help clean up the Gulf Coast even as it braces for another possible hit from Hurricane Rita.
Bush said he has seen progress in his five visits to the hurricane zone, but the towering roadside mounds of downed trees, flattened homes and broken furniture in sight of the presidential motorcade showed much work remains.
“There is no doubt in my mind that out of the rubble and out of the huge heaps of timber that used to be homes, a better Mississippi will emerge,” Bush told local government and business leaders.
The gathering in an air-conditioned tent set up in a hurricane-damaged outlet shopping center was the first meeting of Gov. Haley Barbour’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal. Bush applauded their “can-do spirit” and said he was glad to see local leaders heeding his call to lead the recovery plan.
After Mississippi, Bush flew to New Orleans for a briefing aboard the USS Iwo Jima about Hurricane Rita as it lashed the Florida Keys. Bush, who was to tour a Folger’s coffee plant in Louisiana, signed an emergency declaration for the Florida Keys. Victims of Katrina in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama fretted that Rita could force more misery on them.
Taking aim at red tape
Eager to show his hands-on leadership after being criticized for a slow initial response to Katrina, Bush told the Mississippi leaders that he heard their complaints about bureaucratic hurdles for trash removal. “There was a level of frustration, as there should have been,” he said.
He said he was personally making calls to cut through red tape and that people in the area will soon see results. “We’ll get the debris removed,” he said.
Barbour told Bush that local officials need the federal government’s help to rebuild the area’s infrastructure and make Mississippi’s hurricane zone “the most attractive place in America for private investment.”
“I’m confident that we’ll get the resources because y’all have been so generous and good to us. But we want you to know that we’re going to try to help you know what to give us,” Barbour said to laughter from the crowd of a couple hundred people sitting on folding chairs.
Jim Barksdale, chairman of Barbour’s commission, told the president and other attendees that they only have themselves to blame if reconstruction isn’t successful.
“You folks are like the pig at a ham and egg breakfast,” he said. “You are committed.”
Some areas still waiting for aid
White House press secretary Scott McClellan acknowledged that some of Mississippi’s more rural areas still are waiting for federal help that has been focused in New Orleans and other larger population centers.
“Certainly there are some people out there that are frustrated and in need of assistance,” McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One en route from Washington. “We’ve got to continue working to get them assistance as quickly as we can.
“There is some level of patience that obviously is going to be required during this time,” he said, “but we are urging everyone to move forward as quickly as they can to get people the help they need.”
In Washington, the White House said earlier that Bush had named Frances Fragos Townsend, his in-house homeland security adviser, to lead an administration investigation of “what went wrong and what went right” in the sluggish federal response to Hurricane Katrina. Townsend will call a meeting with Cabinet secretaries in the next few days to determine how to move forward, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said. Michael Chertoff is secretary of homeland security.
The appointment of Townsend, a former federal prosecutor with a reputation as a tough adversary, is unlikely to satisfy Democrats on Capitol Hill who are demanding a fully independent investigation.
Return trips planned Friday and Saturday
Bush planned to return South Friday and Saturday to visit Alabama, Texas and Arkansas — neighboring states that have taken in large numbers of Katrina evacuees.
Being away from Washington on Saturday will keep Bush far from an anti-war march that organizers hope will attract 100,000 people. The demonstration is expected to include Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq who set up camp outside Bush’s Texas ranch in August and drew thousands of fellow protesters. She has been on a 25-state bus tour scheduled to end at the Washington march and concert featuring folk singer Joan Baez.
On another front, 21 House Republicans sent a letter demanding that Bush find spending cuts in federal programs to offset the massive cost of rebuilding the Gulf Coast. Conservatives, worried that the deficit will balloon, have been alarmed at the pace of spending with no talk of how to pay for it.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., suggested dropping the Medicare prescription drug plan, which he has long opposed. “It was supposed to cost $400 billion,” he told CBS Evening News. “It’s now up to $700 billion. We ought to cancel it, go back to square one.”
McClellan rejected the idea.
Bush last week ruled out raising taxes to pay Katrina expenses and said other government spending must be cut. His aides have said, though, that no such cuts have yet been identified and that the hurricane relief effort will temporarily swell the deficit.
Estimates of the final cost have reached $200 billion and more.
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