President Bush traveled South Monday to promise “a huge effort” for Hurricane Katrina victims in a visit somewhat sullied by thinly-disguised friction with Louisiana’s governor over the pace of relief.
Bush first stopped at the Bethany World Prayer Center, a huge hall half covered with pallets and half filled with dining tables. Gov. Kathleen Blanco visited at the same time, but like estranged in-laws at a holiday gathering, the Republican president and Democratic governor kept their distance as they walked around talking to people.
At the second stop — a visit to an emergency operations center — Bush kissed Blanco on the cheek, but it wasn’t clear whether they had made up. The two said little publicly during the appearance.
Terse words from La. governor
“I know I don’t need to make any other introduction other than ‘Mr. President,’ ” Blanco said tersely, turning the microphone over to Bush after thanking emergency workers for their hard work.
Bush echoed Blanco’s praise for rescue workers. “I hope that makes you feel good to know you have saved lives,” Bush said, promising that state, local and federal officials he would fix anything that isn’t going right. “This is just the beginning of a huge effort,” he said.
Bush, looking choked up as he finished his brief remarks, nodded at Blanco.
Behind the scenes, state and federal officials — all facing public criticism for a slow response to the crisis — have each suggested the other is to blame.
Blanco has refused to sign over National Guard control to the federal government and has turned to a Clinton administration official, former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief James Lee Witt, to help run relief efforts.
Blanco was not informed of the timing of Bush’s visit, nor was she immediately invited to meet him or travel with him. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said the White House reached out to Blanco’s office Sunday, but didn’t hear back, and White House staff in Louisiana spoke with Blanco early Monday.
‘I need answers’
During his stop at Bethany, several people ran up to meet Bush as he and first lady Laura Bush wandered around the room. But just as many hung back and just looked on.
“I’m not star-struck. I need answers,” said Mildred Brown, who has been there since Tuesday with her husband, mother-in-law and cousin. “I’m not interested in handshaking. I’m not interested in photo ops. This is going to take a lot of money.”
Bush hasn’t gone a day without a public event devoted to the storm and its aftermath. But none of those trips so far — nor appearances by several Cabinet members in the region — has quieted complaints that Washington’s response to the disaster has been sluggish.
Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, just south of New Orleans, broke down on NBC’s “Meet the Press” when he talked about people who waited for help.
“They were told like me, every single day, the cavalry’s coming, on a federal level,” Broussard said. “I have just begun to hear the hoofs of the cavalry.”
Agency says 22,800 people saved
Meanwhile, Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said the number of people rescued has reached 22,800, more than four times the number the Coast Guard usually saves in a year.
At least 155,000 individuals have been evacuated from the stricken areas and most of them are housed in some 560 shelters, Knocke added. More than 60,000 civilian and military personnel are now providing assistance in the stricken area.
It was Bush’s third inspection tour, the second by ground. Last week, he had his pilot lower Air Force One, the presidential jet, to an altitude of about 2,500 feet as he flew over the area. Last Friday, he walked a neighborhood in Biloxi on Mississippi’s coast and stopped at the airport and a breached levee in New Orleans.
By contrast, Baton Rouge, about 80 miles northwest of New Orleans, largely escaped damage. Its population, however, has swelled dramatically with displaced people and is experiencing clogged roads and supply shortages.
Bush speaks in Mississippi
Poplarville, Miss., where Bush met with state and local officials at the Pearl River Community College on Monday afternoon, is about 45 miles inland. But devastation in the town and surrounding rural areas was enormous.
At the college, Bush spoke hopefully of the future for the region. “I'd like to come back down here in two years and see how vital this part of the world is going to be,” Bush said. “I just want you to know that when I'm thinking about how we can help, Mississippi is on my mind.
“We’re here for the long term,” the president said. “I understand the damage, I understand the devastation, I understand the destruiction and we're with you for as long as it's going to take ... God bless.”
The Red Cross said that by Monday morning, 75,000 names were on its “family links registry” for disaster victims and their relatives. Victims go on the list when they are registered at shelters.
Government under fire
Bush has come under fire for waiting until two days after Katrina hit — and a day after levee breaks drowned New Orleans and turned it into a place of lawless misery — to return to Washington from his August break in Texas to oversee the federal response.
It took several days for food and water to reach the tens of thousands of desperate New Orleans residents who took shelter in the increasingly squalid and deadly Superdome and city convention center. Outlying areas, though receiving less nationwide attention, suffered some of the same problems.
Officials are now reporting some progress, and some new worries.
Hundreds of federal health officers and nearly 100 tons of medical supplies were on their way to the Gulf Coast to try to head off disease outbreaks, feared because of the hot weather, mosquitoes and standing water holding human waste, corpses and other contaminants.
General calls search and rescue ‘No. 1 task’
At a news conference, Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the plain-spoken 1st Army commander in charge of relief efforts, called for patience and outlined the responsibiolities of forces under his charge.
“Our job is to help,” he said, disputing claims that people are not being helped. “Our No. 1 task is search and rescue and we're still doing that, we're still finding people,” he said at the news conference. "The No. 1 priority of the government of Mississippi and the government of Louisiana is search and rescue and that's what were attempting to do."
Honore said that the next priorities would be distribution of food and water, restoration of communications and gasoline.
Honore chided private industry, calling on businesses to chip in and aid in the recovery effort. “Some of those we have direct influence on; others we ask for help with,” he said, urging businesses to “get down here and get some damn gas here, and get those phones working. Bring the phones in and get the gas to the people, because it enables small towns and families to collaborate and be able to talk to each other again.”
Honore pledged to pursue reconstruction efforts “with all deliberate speed and passion.”