Scorched by criticism about sluggish federal help, President Bush acknowledged the government’s failure to stop lawlessness and help desperate people in New Orleans. “The results are not enough,” Bush said Friday in the face of mounting complaints from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Bush promised to crack down on crime and violence, rush food and medicine to the needy and restore electrical power within weeks to millions of customers across the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“This is a storm that requires immediate action, now,” the president said after a daylong tour of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. “I understand the devastation requires more than one day’s attention. It’s going to require the attention of this country for a long period of time.”
Congress passed a $10.5 billion disaster aid package, and Bush signed it after returning to Washington. He also said National Guard troops were moving in to restore order in New Orleans. He said the city’s convention center, where thousands of people lived for days in unsafe conditions, was secure.
The bill combines $10 billion in new FEMA funds — enough to last just a few weeks — and $500 million for the Pentagon’s role in the relief mission. The FEMA funds, among other uses, will finance food and emergency shelter, medical care, debris removal, generators and cash payments to hurricane victims. FEMA will also funnel funds to other federal agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for repairing levees around New Orleans and pumping out the floodwaters inundating the city.
Grasping the magnitude
Inspecting Gulf Coast disaster scenes from the air and on the ground, Bush said the damage was “worse than imaginable.” He consoled weeping women and praised Coast Guard teams that pulled stranded people from the roofs of flooded homes. In New Orleans, Bush flew by helicopter to the ruptured 17th Street levee and watched workers load huge sandbags that were airlifted and dropped into the breach.
“The president is starting to grasp the magnitude of the situation,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said, “The president obviously was just stunned” by what he saw.
Bush met with Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who described the discussions as "frank and productive." This assessment came amid bitter and sharply worded criticisms from some local officials, including the mayor of New Orleans, over what they felt was a slow federal response to the disaster.
Four days after Katrina killed hundreds if not thousands, Republicans joined Democrats in wondering why it was taking so long to relieve the misery of so many people living in squalor without the necessities of life.
“If we can’t respond faster than this to an event we saw coming across the gulf for days, then why do we think we’re prepared to respond to a nuclear or biological attack?” asked former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican.
Republican Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts called the government’s response “an embarrassment.”
Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., called upon Bush to recall National Guardsmen stationed in Iraq whose homes and families were in the path of Katrina’s destruction. The president said there were enough Guard troops for Iraq and recovery efforts.
The storm of criticism was stinging for a president who won widespread praise for his handling of the terrorist attacks four years ago. It was an unwelcome turn for Bush, suffering sagging approval ratings in the polls.
'We're going to make it right'
While Bush has been loath to admit errors throughout his presidency, he conceded that the recovery is not proceeding well. Some White House aides and Republicans were glad to hear the president stop defending the administration’s response when it was so obvious that conditions were so bad for so many people.
“Where it’s not working right, we’re going to make it right,” the president said after walking through a devastated neighborhood of Mobile, Ala. “Where it is working right, we’re going to duplicate it elsewhere.”
Bush faulted efforts to restore order in New Orleans, where looting, violence and other crimes have been rampant. Asked what he meant by unacceptable results, Bush said, “Well, I’m talking about the fact that we don’t have enough security in New Orleans yet.” He said 1,200 National Guard troops arrived there on Friday and that 1,200 were deployed on Thursday.
“They need to stabilize that situation,” the president said. “They need to make sure that the food and medicine that is in place is given to the people that need the food and medicine.”
He said he was not faulting efforts in Mississippi, where Republican Gov. Haley Barbour praised federal help. Still, Barbour said, “We’ve suffered a grievous blow that we won’t recover from for a long while”
Just a day earlier, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had lashed out at federal officials: “They don’t have a clue what’s going on down here.”
Anticipating a grim day, Bush said, “I’m not looking forward to this trip” as he began his inspection tour. “It’s as if the entire Gulf Coast were obliterated by the worst kind of weapon you can imagine.”
There were calls from Republicans for Bush to name a prominent official to oversee the recovery. Gingrich suggested former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., suggested Giuliani, former Secretary of State Colin Powell or retired Gen. Tommy Franks to take charge.
In Biloxi, Miss., Bush comforted two weeping women on a street where a house had collapsed and towering trees were stripped of their branches. “My son needs clothes,” said Bronwynne Bassier, 23, clutching several trash bags. “I don’t have anything.”
“I understand that,” Bush said. He kissed both women on their heads and walked with his arms around them, telling them they could get help from the Salvation Army. “Hang in there,” he said.
Asked later how the richest country on Earth could not meet the needs of its people, Bush said: “I am satisfied with the response. I am not satisfied with all the results.”
‘Plenty of resources’ for war and hurricane
The White House announced Bush had approved federal disaster aid for Texas and Arkansas, which also sustained hurricane damage. Bush urged people to donate money to the Red Cross.
The president rejected suggestions that the United States could not afford both the war in Iraq and the hurricane cleanup. “We’ll do both. We’ve got plenty of resources to do both,” he said.
While some states have suspended state motor fuel taxes as prices have jumped at the pump, Treasury Department officials in Washington said there was no discussion about reducing the federal tax on gasoline. However, some members of Congress have raised the idea.
Also Friday the Bush administration announced it will offer some 30 million barrels of crude oil from its emergency stockpile, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, for sale, in addition to loaning 9.1 million barrels to specific refiners, to help stabilize the hurricane-hit oil market. The strategic reserve holds 700 million barrels of crude oil.
In his tour, Bush has tried to respond to Katrina in a way that evokes the national goodwill he cultivated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — and that does not recall the criticism his father, former President Bush, endured after Hurricane Andrew slammed Florida in 1992.