Recovery `will take years,' Bush says

Government mobilizing extensive relief effort for victims of hurricane

Katrina's Wake

September 01, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Recovering from Hurricane Katrina "will take years," President Bush said yesterday as federal officials planned a major relief effort and emergency agencies raced to provide food, shelter, water and medical treatment to victims of what he called "one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history."

"This is going to be a difficult road. The challenges that we face on the ground are unprecedented," Bush told reporters in the White House Rose Garden, flanked by Cabinet officials he summoned to an afternoon meeting to plan the relief effort.

Bush cut short a five-week hiatus from the White House on his Crawford, Texas, ranch to return to Washington yesterday and devote his attention to the government's response to the disaster. He saw the scope of Katrina's devastation through the windows of Air Force One during a 35-minute bird's-eye tour and plans to return for a visit at week's end, said spokesman Scott McClellan.

Officials called the recovery effort one of the most extensive federal disaster mobilizations in U.S. history - and some experts speculated that it could be the costliest.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, preparing to return to Washington on Tuesday after a monthlong recess, said that providing emergency disaster funding would be "our highest priority," even as officials and aides said it could be weeks or months before they could estimate the devastation Katrina had wrought, and what it might cost to deal with it.

Government relief efforts ranged from providing bare essentials for the hardest hit - such as food, water, ice and tents for displaced people - to broader policy changes to shield the rest of the country from the disaster's ripple effects, such as moves to prevent fuel shortages.

Bush "has been unambiguous in his mandate that we leave no stone unturned and leave no effort unexhausted in proceeding to do whatever we can to rescue people, alleviate suffering and address this terrible tragedy," said Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Homeland Security Department.

"It's all hands on deck," said Paul McHale, the assistant secretary of defense.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency sent medical disaster and urban search-and-rescue teams from around the nation to affected areas, dispatching some 1,700 trucks bearing food, water, medical equipment, tents and power generators to victims.

FEMA also was working with the Army Corps of Engineers to repair breached levees that kept water spilling into New Orleans, parts of which were already flooded up to the rooftops.

The Coast Guard was helping to rescue victims - up to 2,000 by yesterday evening.

The Pentagon sent eight Navy ships and was planning to provide 50 helicopters to assist FEMA with recovery efforts. The Baltimore-based USNS Comfort, a hospital ship, is to depart tomorrow and arrive in the Gulf region Sept. 8, McHale said.

Bush agreed to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the nation's emergency oil stockpile, in an effort to keep the crude oil supply steady by compensating for production lost as a result of the storm.

Stephen L. Johnson, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, announced that he was temporarily rolling back certain pollution rules for gasoline and diesel fuel in order to prevent fuel shortages.

"This action will result in a needed increase in fuel supply," Johnson said.

Bush cautioned that the moves were not a panacea for rising gasoline prices.

"This will help take some pressure off of gas price, but our citizens must understand this storm has disrupted the capacity to make gasoline and distribute gasoline," the president said.

Michael O. Leavitt, the secretary of health and human services, declared a public health emergency for the Gulf region and began setting up 40 medical shelters, saying that health officials are "gravely concerned" about potential outbreaks of cholera, typhoid or other diseases that could spread as a result of stagnant water.

"We stand ready to unite with the rest of America to assure that this tragedy is overcome," Leavitt said.

Bush, top members of his team, and lawmakers were working to convey a sense of urgency about helping victims of the storm and protecting others around the nation from its effects. Few things motivate policymakers to come together and take decisive action as swiftly as a national disaster.

Congressional appropriators were preparing to draft an emergency disaster-relief measure - likely a multibillion-dollar package - that could pass within weeks.

Representatives from three affected states sit on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, including the panel's Republican chairman, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi; Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat; and Sen. Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican.

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