President Bush said today that relief efforts to help those affected by Hurricane Katrina are "not acceptable," a rare admission that his administration has not coped effectively in a crisis.
But on a day spent touring the devastated Gulf region, the president promised that the government would rectify the situation. "What's not working right, we're going to make it right," Bush said.
"I'm not going to forget what I've seen," Bush said at the end of the day, after touring areas in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana hit hard by Katrina. "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."
All day, Bush toured the stricken Gulf Coast area and was briefed by officials and politicians on the ground. He also met with victims of the disaster.
The president's comments came as the federal government reacted to mounting criticism, including from some political leaders in the Gulf states, who have called the administration's response to the disaster slow and inadequate. Television pictures of the increasingly desperate plight of those affected by the hurricane have sparked disbelief and consternation among Americans.
"The federal government's job is big and it's massive and we're going to do it," Bush said during his tour. We have a responsibility to clean up this mess."
Bush flew to Mobile, Ala., and met with officials. He then went to the stricken coastal city of Biloxi, Miss., where he walked through a devastated neighborhood. He hugged victims of the hurricane and listened to them recount what had happened in the storm and all that they had lost.
"I understand. We're going to get you some help," Bush told one young woman who he then kissed on the head. "Hang in there. Help is on the way."
He finished the day in New Orleans. He flew into the airport there and then flew over the city, taking a look at ongoing operations to repair one of the breached levees that led to massive flooding in the city.
Before leaving Washington earlier in the day, Bush said, "A lot of people are working hard to help those who have been affected. The results are not acceptable."
Asked by reporters later in the day what he meant by that comment, Bush replied that he was "certainly not denigrating the efforts of anybody. But the results can be better in New Orleans."
Bush was asked if the country could afford to continue spending billions of dollars on the war in Iraq while there was a monumental crisis in the United States. He responded: "We've got plenty of resources to do both. We'll secure our country from the terrorists and we'll rebuild this area. We've got what it takes to do more than one thing."
The president also said that because of problems with the pipelines that carry fuel from the Gulf to the Northeast, "we're going to have a problem this weekend when it comes to gasoline." He did not elaborate.
Bush said the $10.5 billion in emergency assistance appropriated by Congress was only a "down payment" on the aid that will be needed to rebuild the area. "It's as if the entire Gulf coast was obliterated by the worst kind of weapon you can imagine," Bush said.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who accompanied Bush on his tour of Louisiana, said in an interview earlier in Baton Rouge that the federal relief effort has been an "operational failure." He said he planned to tell the president that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been "completely dysfunctional and completely overwhelmed" by the disaster.
Bush said the government was "making progress" getting people out of the New Orleans Superdome. Tens of thousands of people had taken shelter in the Superdome, and conditions there had deteriorated daily since the storm hit four days ago.
In addition, Bush said one of the federal government's objectives today was to secure the New Orleans' convention center, where thousands of residents had been crying for help. He said that was achieved and the "good folks there got food and water. The caravans -- the bus caravans -- are continuing on, as is the airlift."
Bush said, "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, and that we're beginning long-term planning to help those who have been displaced, as well as long-term planning to help rebuild the communities that have been affected."
In Mobile, Bush said that "out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf coast, like it was before." He said New Orleans will emerge a "great city again."
"Now we're in the darkest days," the president said.