In face of criticism, president acting to manage the Katrina crisis

Katrina's Wake

September 02, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When President Bush traces the ruinous path of Hurricane Katrina by air and ground today, he'll see a disaster measured in thousands of victims, miles of floodwater and piles of rubble.

What could take longer to assess is the impact the storm has had on his presidency during a time of war, rising gasoline prices and sagging poll numbers.

For now, though, Bush is in crisis-management mode. He called Congress back to Washington, to pump $10.5 billion more into the government's burgeoning recovery effort. Aides said the president will request added funding within weeks.

Bush met with senior advisers, including Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, to track the hurricane's impact on the U.S. economy. He appeared in the Oval Office with his father, former President George Bush, and former President Bill Clinton, whom he asked to lead a charitable effort modeled on the $1 billion fundraising operation they conducted in response to the Asian tsunamis in December.

Bush admonished would-be looters and price-gougers not to take advantage of the rampant disorder in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and pleaded for calm as the scope of suffering and lawlessness overshadowed rescue and relief efforts that many storm victims complained had come too late.

"We all know this is an agonizing time for the people of the Gulf Coast," Bush said. "I ask their continued patience as recovery operations unfold. I can assure them that the thoughts and prayers of the entire nation are with them and their loved ones."

He and his wife, Laura, wrote a personal check to the American Red Cross of undisclosed size - but described as "significant" by White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Bush's tour and the swift action by Congress are two ways for the president to blunt criticism that he and his administration acted too slowly in recognizing the scope of Katrina's destruction and anticipating the rescue, recovery and rebuilding effort that would be needed.

Earlier this week, Bush stuck to his schedule, traveling to events in Arizona and California as Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast. It was only in the storm's aftermath on Tuesday that it became clear to Bush and his aides that "this has been a major catastrophe," McClellan said, and plans were made for the president to return to Washington on Wednesday to mobilize a response.

The symbolic capstone to Bush's efforts this week will come today, when he is to tour coastal Alabama and Mississippi and the New Orleans area by helicopter, with stops in Mobile, Ala. and parts of Mississippi.

The daylong visit is an opportunity for Bush to signal, in images that will be beamed around the country, his concern for storm victims and determination to help survivors and people across the nation cope with the effects of the hurricane.

"I fully understand people wanting things to have happened yesterday. I mean, I understand the anxiety of people on the ground. I just can't imagine what it's like to be waving a sign that said, `Come and get me now.' So there is frustration," Bush said in an interview on ABC's Good Morning America. "But I want people to know there's a lot of help coming."

Yesterday, McClellan defended Bush's handling of the disaster, giving reporters a litany of the measures he said the president and top officials took to prepare before Katrina hit. The steps included Bush's disaster declarations over the weekend for Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, which enabled the Federal Emergency Management Agency to "pre-position" relief resources.

"This is a time when the whole country needs to come together to help those in the region, and that's where our focus is," McClellan said. "This is not a time to get into any finger-pointing or politics or anything of that nature."

Bush said the government would assume 100 percent - instead of the usual 75 percent - of disaster relief costs, given the magnitude of the catastrophe.

"This action recognizes the unprecedented scope and impact of this disaster," McClellan said.

The storm's impact on gasoline prices that were soaring even before Katrina hit continued to be a major economic concern, and threatened to become a political problem for Bush with the approach of the Labor Day weekend.

Bush asked Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, to waive prohibitions against foreign ships transporting gasoline to U.S. market points, one day after his administration authorized loans from the nation's petroleum stockpiles and waived pollution rules to guard against price spikes.

The president called for sacrifice in the face of what he called a "temporary disruption" in fuel supplies, cautioning that his moves alone would not be enough to prevent shortages.

"Steps we're taking will help address the problem of availability, but it's not going to solve it," Bush said. "Americans should be prudent in their use of energy during the course of the next few weeks. Don't buy gas if you don't need it."

The House is set today to clear the emergency spending measure, $10 billion of which will replenish a disaster fund from which FEMA has been drawing more than $500 million a day, said Joshua B. Bolten, Bush's budget director. The other $500 million will go to the Pentagon to pay for military assistance with the recovery, including the deployment of National Guard troops.

The Senate approved the measure last night.

Bolten called it a "stopgap measure" to fund recovery efforts while officials spend the next few weeks assessing the costs of recovering from Katrina and prepare another emergency request for federal money.

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