President George Bush is spending much of his time on relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Katrina after his administration was harshly criticised for an initial response to the storm called slow and inadequate.
Visiting the devastated region again yesterday, Bush tried to repair tattered relations with Louisiana’s Democratic governor, Kathleen Blanco, while also praising relief workers.
“This is one of these disasters that will test our soul and test our spirit, but we’re going to show the world once again that not only can we survive but we will be stronger and better for it,” Bush told workers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “This is just the beginning of a huge effort.”
More White House events on storm relief were planned today, including meetings with Cabinet secretaries and representatives of volunteer organisations. Congress returns to Washington today and congressional leaders will consider additional steps to aid the recovery for victims of the hurricane.
Bush’s trip yesterday to visit Baton Rouge and Poplarville, Mississippi, was his third inspection tour, the second by ground.
Last Wednesday, 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 while returning to Washington. On Friday, he walked a neighbourhood in Biloxi on Mississippi’s coast and stopped at the airport and a breached levee in New Orleans.
Since his return to Washington last week, Bush hasn’t gone a day without a public event devoted to the storm and its devastation. But the administration has not been able to quiet complaints about Washington’s initial relief efforts. Congress already plans hearings on the federal response.
During a stop at Bethany World Prayer Centre in Baton Rouge, 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 looked on.
“I need answers,” said Mildred Brown, who has been at the centre since Tuesday with her husband, mother-in-law and cousin. “I’m not interested in hand-shaking. I’m not interested in photo ops.”
State as well as federal officials are facing public criticism for a slow response to the crisis. Behind the scenes, each suggests the other is to blame.
That tension was evident when the president and the Louisiana governor appeared together in Baton Rouge.
Blanco had to cancel a planned trip to Houston to visit evacuees after learning at the last minute that Bush planned a visit to Baton Rouge. She has turned to a Clinton administration official, former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief James Lee Witt, to help run relief efforts.
After addressing relief workers yesterday, the president seemed to choke up, nodded at Blanco and kissed her on the cheek. She nodded back and both left the podium, heading for separate spots in the crowd.
Blanco later played down reports of differences with Bush. “We’d like to stop the voices out there trying to create a divide,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”
During his stop in Mississippi, Bush said he understood his optimism about the region’s recovery was hard for others to share.
“It’s easy for me to say that I can see a better tomorrow because I haven’t been living through what you are living,” he said, “but I do.”
In other hurricane-related developments:
:: A report from the congressional General Accounting Office said the Bush administration was warned this summer that some first responders were concerned their training and equipment was tilting too much toward combating terrorism rather than natural disasters;
:: The total for active-duty ground forces helping storm victims will grow to about 8,500, up from the 7,200 announced on Saturday, military officials said. And most of the 2,800 Louisiana National Guard soldiers who are returning home early from their Iraq mission intend to join in the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, their commander said.