- The Washington Times - Monday, September 20, 2004

PENSACOLA, Fla. — President Bush yesterday played consoler-in-chief for the third time in a month, touring the hurricane-ravaged Florida Panhandle, where he told weary residents who returned to find their homes flattened “we ask God’s blessings on you and your family.”

“The devastation caused by Ivan is terrible. This was a big storm that caused a lot of damage and a lot of suffering,” the president said after touring damaged areas in Florida and Alabama, ripped by the hurricane, which came ashore Thursday with 130 mph winds.

He vowed that the federal government will step up quickly to aid homeowners hammered by Ivan, which left more than 50 dead as it rolled from Florida to the Washington area, where the tropical storm spawned tornadoes and caused flash flooding.

“The federal government has a responsibility to provide aid as quickly as possible,” he said, assuring residents that his administration is making sure that “all federal aid is coordinated well with the state and local governments, making sure all the aid that is available gets down here as quickly as possible.”

As Mr. Bush flew into the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, the devastation wrought by Ivan was clearly visible. Houses had been leveled, roofs sheared off, and boats had been tossed by a 20-foot storm surge onto land and — in one instance — the median strip of a highway.

Dressed in gray slacks and a short-sleeved shirt, the president visited Quina Vista, a particularly hard-hit spot on the Gulf of Mexico near the Alabama state line. Washing machines, clothing, furniture and household items were strewn about the neighborhood. And the cleanup had only just begun: Residents who evacuated were not allowed to return until Saturday.

But the residents who greeted the president were upbeat, even cheerful. The entire neighborhood was working together to recover from the disaster, and Mr. Bush praised their spirit.

“The amazing thing about these catastrophes is how the American people rise to the occasion. The amazing thing about devastation is how there is such compassion in the face of such devastation,” he said.

Residents had only 10 minutes’ notice that the president was visiting. The White House did not want to announce the stop for fear that too many people from neighboring areas would converge on the community. White House advance staffers wearing blue shirts emblazoned with the acronym of the Federal Emergency Management Agency blended in with relief workers before Mr. Bush arrived.

Mr. Bush walked along Comstock Street, stopping to meet the owners of 10114, who had braced their door up in its old spot with a pair of 2-by-4s. That was the only vertical part of the house; the rest lay in a heap in what was once the back yard.

Across the street, the Heinold family lost their house, too. Karen Heinold was the first to greet the president, and melted into tears as he approached. “We lost everything,” she told him, and he wrapped her up in a hug and kissed her forehead.

Another woman nearby immediately asked, “Can I have a hug?” The president obliged.

Mr. Bush also took a helicopter tour of the Gulf Coast on his way to Orange Beach, Ala. There, he walked along the beach with officials, including his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, FEMA Director Mike Brown and local officials.

The president stopped near a pool that had been hoisted from the ground, asking: “Where was this?” He also pointed to the remains of the Crystal Beach Condominiums, ripped in half by the storm.

But in a short statement after his Alabama tour, the president said all Americans are “praying for you,” and pledged “that we’ll get help out here as quickly as we can.”

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