US President George Bush today threw more resources at the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast as criticism mounted that a slow response by the government had contributed to the misery of thousands of people in the region.
“The enormity of the task requires more resources,” the president said. “In America we do not abandon our fellow citizens in their hour of need.”
Bush said 4,000 active duty troops are already in the area and 7,000 more will arrive in the next 72 hours. Those troops will be in addition to some 21,000 National Guard troops already in the region.
The decision came after the president met for nearly an hour with Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and others involved in planning the recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
Bush took the rare step of delivering his Saturday morning radio broadcast live from the White House Rose Garden with Rumsfeld, Chertoff and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by his side.
Bush was resolute during his remarks, but he smiled when he commented on the people of the region, which he visited Friday.
“When you talk to the proud folks in the area, you see a spirit that cannot be broken,” he said.
After returning to Washington late last night from nearly seven hours spent touring some of the most devastated areas of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, Bush took several more steps in his effort to meet that pledge of support and to recapture the leadership kudos he won after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Bush immediately signed a $10.5bn (€8.4bn) disaster aid package passed by Congress – an amount he repeatedly called “just the beginning” of federal expenditures for storm relief. He issued a memorandum saying Hurricane Katrina could damage the national economy, and he formally authorised the release of crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
The hurricane forced Bush to cancel his meeting on Wednesday with Chinese President Hu Jintao, the White House said. The two leaders, who spoke on the phone this morning, agreed that it was best to reschedule the visit. They agreed, however, to meet in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting later this month.
“I’m not going to forget what I’ve seen,” the president said in New Orleans as he ended his tour yesterday. “I understand the devastation requires more than one day’s attention.”
While Bush sized up the crisis mostly by air, he heard plenty during meetings aboard his plane with local politicians about why it is taking so long to relieve the misery of so many people in New Orleans who have been living in squalor.
“He heard some things he didn’t want to believe at first,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat. “The president is starting to grasp the magnitude of the situation.”
Four days after Katrina killed hundreds if not thousands, Republicans joined Democrats in shaking their heads.
“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”.
The criticism stung for a president who won widespread praise for his handling of the terrorist attacks four years ago – and who already is suffering sagging approval ratings in the polls over the Iraq war and petrol prices that were high even before Katrina wreaked havoc on Gulf of Mexico operations.
The active duty troops Bush ordered to the region are from the Army’s 82nd Airborne from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, and the Marines’ 1st and 2nd Expeditionary forces from Camp Pendleton, California, and Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
To cries of “Thank you, Jesus!” and catcalls of “What took you so long?”, a National Guard convoy packed with food, water and medicine rolled through axle-deep floodwaters into what remained of New Orleans and descended into a maelstrom of fires and floating corpses.
“Lord, I thank you for getting us out of here!” Leschia Radford shrieked amid a throng of tens of thousands of storm victims outside the New Orleans Convention Centre.
More than four days after the storm hit, the caravan of at least three-dozen camouflage-green troop vehicles and supply trucks arrived along with dozens of air-conditioned buses to take refugees out of the city.
There were also profane jeers from many in the crowd of nearly 20,000 outside the convention centre, which a day earlier seemed on the verge of a riot, with desperate people seething with anger over the lack of anything to eat or drink.
“They should have been here days ago,” said 46-year-old Michael Levy, whose words were echoed by those around him yelling: “Hell, yeah!”
“We’ve been sleeping on the ground like rats,” Levy added. “I say burn this whole city down.”
The soldiers’ arrival-in-force came amid angry complaints from the mayor and others that the federal government had bungled the relief effort and let people die in the streets for lack of food, water or medicine.
“The people of our city are holding on by a thread,” Mayor Ray Nagin warned in a statement to CNN. “Time has run out. Can we survive another night? And who can we depend on? Only God knows.”