- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2005

President Bush yesterday ordered America’s largest emergency effort since September 11, 2001, deploying Navy ships and Army helicopters to states ravaged by Hurricane Katrina and activating a new national response plan.

But Mr. Bush warned that it will “take years” for the Gulf Coast region to recover from the Category 4 hurricane that officials say may have killed thousands.

“We are dealing with one of the worst natural disasters in our nation’s history,” Mr. Bush said in the White House Rose Garden, after flying over the storm-struck region in Air Force One.

“The vast majority of New Orleans, Louisiana, is under water. Tens of thousands of homes and businesses are beyond repair. A lot of the Mississippi Gulf Coast has been completely destroyed,” he said. “This recovery will take a long time. This recovery will take years.”

The White House declared the hurricane an “incident of national significance,” triggering a national emergency plan — completed in January — that was designed after the terrorist attacks in 2001.

As part of the plan, the Pentagon yesterday dispatched warships, including two helicopter assault vessels and elite SEAL water-rescue teams, as well as the hospital ship USNS Comfort, to Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

The Comfort left from Baltimore while the USS Iwo Jima, a helicopter assault ship, departed from Norfolk. The ships, and several others, will arrive in five days, the Navy said.

Also yesterday, Mr. Bush warned that the devastation in the Gulf Coast, with refineries that produce about a third of all U.S. gasoline, likely will have a nationwide effect.

“Our citizens must understand this storm has disrupted the capacity to make gasoline and to distribute gasoline,” he said. He announced that his administration would release oil supplies from the 700-million-barrel federal Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Meanwhile, congressional leaders promised to move an assistance package for the victims of Katrina as soon as possible.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi yesterday called for Congress to convene for a special session this week to act on hurricane relief, while Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid called for the Senate to move immediately to consider a package when Congress returns on Tuesday from its summer recess. But Republicans said they have to wait for a proposal from the administration and will bring that to the Senate floor as soon as it is ready.

Mississippi’s two Republican senators are likely to take the lead, given that Thad Cochran is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and Trent Lott’s home in Pascagoula was destroyed in the storm surge.

Mr. Bush returned yesterday to Washington from his ranch in Texas, with Air Force One flying low over hurricane-damaged areas en route to help him survey some of the worst damage from Katrina.

“It’s totally wiped out,” Mr. Bush said as he looked down on the almost completely submerged city of New Orleans.

The presidential jet descended to 1,700 feet over parts of Mississippi. “It’s devastating,” Mr. Bush said, looking from a window at an entire community reduced to rubble, with just rooftops poking out of murky, brown water. “It’s got to be doubly devastating on the ground.”

Arriving in Washington to coordinate rescue and relief efforts, Mr. Bush met with the heads of 14 federal agencies involved in the recovery and cleanup, including the departments of Energy, Interior, and Health and Human Services.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was assigned to lead a Cabinet-level task force to coordinate “all our assistance from Washington,” Mr. Bush said.

Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will be in charge of all federal response and recovery efforts in the field and will coordinate with state and local officials.

The president yesterday set out three priorities for the emergency response: saving lives and evacuating endangered survivors; providing adequate food, water and shelter for dislocated people; and launching a comprehensive recovery effort.

“We’re focused on restoring power and lines of communication that have been knocked out during the storm. We will be repairing major roads and bridges and other essential means of transportation as quickly as possible,” Mr. Bush said.

“The folks on the Gulf Coast are going to need the help of this country for a long time,” he said. “This is going to be a difficult road. The challenges that we face on the ground are unprecedented. But there’s no doubt in my mind we’re going to succeed.”

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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