- The Washington Times - Friday, September 2, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — President Bush yesterday acknowledged that the federal government’s response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina was “not enough,” as he personally delivered a help-is-on-the-way message to Gulf Coast residents stranded for nearly a week without food or water.

“This is a storm that requires immediate action, now,” said the president, who spent the day touring hard-hit communities in 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.”

As he did after the terrorist attacks of September 11, Mr. Bush took on the role of comforter in chief. He walked along streets where houses had been reduced to piles of rubble, consoling residents who lost everything with hugs and words of support.

In Biloxi, Miss., Mr. Bush kissed two weeping women on the head after one told him, “I don’t have anything.”

“Sorry you’re going through this,” the president told Bronwynne Bassier, 23, who was clutching several trash bags with which she hoped to recover belongings from her destroyed home. Mr. Bush walked for a while with his arms around her and her sister, Kim, 21, telling them, “Hang in there.”

Before departing on his tour, the president said on the White House front lawn that early results from his administration’s emergency response to the hurricane were “not acceptable.”

“I want to assure the people of the affected areas and this country that we’ll deploy the assets necessary to get the situation under control, to get the help to the people who have been affected,” Mr. Bush said.

After viewing destruction and listening to a briefing on storm damage during his first stop in Mobile, Ala., the president — who appeared on the verge of tears — reiterated his resolve to step up his administration’s response.

“My attitude is, if it’s not going exactly right, we’re going to make it go exactly right. If there’s problems, then we’ll address the problems,” Mr. Bush said.

The president then flew by helicopter to Biloxi, where he witnessed firsthand entire waterfront neighborhoods that had been flattened.

At several points, Mr. Bush’s motorcade had to zig-zag down narrow streets to avoid toppled trees and debris. The president climbed out of his limousine in an area where entire houses had been ripped off their foundations and strewn across the neighborhood. The landscape was heaped with chunks of broken trees, twisted sheets of corrugated aluminum, cinder blocks and heating ducts.

Meanwhile, frustration at the administration’s response to the hurricane boiled over from members of both parties.

“If we think that this was a good example of leadership, we have indeed lowered our standards as a nation,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. She said she agreed with Mr. Bush that the results weren’t satisfactory.

While saying it was not the time for finger-pointing, Republicans agreed that the federal effort had fallen short of what was needed and promised to call congressional hearings to find out what went wrong.

“We are learning some lessons, I think, from this. We have more lessons to learn, I’m afraid,” said Rep. Jim McCrery, Louisiana Republican, whose district was not affected by the hurricane but has taken in hundreds of refugees.

In Biloxi, Mr. Bush defended his administration’s response.

“The levees broke on Tuesday in New Orleans. On Wednesday and Thursday, we started evacuating people. … I am satisfied with the response. I am not satisfied with all the results,” he said.

Mr. Bush rejected a stance voiced by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, who questioned whether it is worth taxpayer money to rebuild the city of New Orleans where it is — below sea level.

“We’re going to get somebody who knows what they’re talking about when it comes to rebuilding cities,” he said in response to a question from The Washington Times. “I’m going to delegate. I’m going to call upon the best experts, starting with the people of New Orleans, and get opinions as we work with the local folks.”

In New Orleans, Mr. Bush said: “The people of New Orleans have got to understand there’s a lot of people working hard and they’re making good progress. I believe that the great city of New Orleans will rise again and be a greater city of New Orleans.”

The president cut short his August vacation by two days and returned to Washington on Wednesday to oversee relief efforts. Mr. Bush’s request for a quick $10.5 billion in initial aid was approved yesterday by Congress, and he signed it late last night when he returned to Washington.

But since the first days of the disaster, critics have charged that the Bush administration has not done enough to help people — most of whom are poor and black — who weathered the storm in New Orleans and were stranded.

Those recriminations increased yesterday as critics ripped the administration for what they charged was a lethargic rescue operation beset by organizational chaos in the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the government branch that handles disasters.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said racism is partly to blame for the deadly aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and he called Mr. Bush’s response to the disaster “incompetent.”

“Today, as the president comes to Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi for his ceremonial trip to look at the victims of the devastation, he would do well to have a plan more significant than a ceremonial tour,” Mr. Jackson said. “His whole response is unacceptable.”

FEMA Director Michael Brown blamed emergency assistance delivery problems on “the total lack of communications, the inability to hear and have good intelligence on the ground about what was actually occurring there.”

But his assessment brought a firm rebuke from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

“This is a wake-up call about the degree to which Homeland Security and Northern Command are really not ready for a major crisis. I think that’s very sobering,” the former Georgia Republican told The Washington Times from Hawaii.

But Mr. Brown and other officials argued that the disaster has made normal emergency response impossible, with impassable roads, levee breaks, snipers, no communications, thousands of residents who didn’t evacuate and a slew of officials in three states trying to coordinate efforts.

“I think we were all taken by the fact that the levees did break in so many places. It caused such widespread devastation, and so we’re responding the best way that we can to help those people that are stuck in this ongoing disaster.”

Joseph Curl and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report from Washington.

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