Evacuation efforts for 25,000 desperate refugees began at the New Orleans convention center today, and the Bush administration dispatched thousands more troops to the hurricane-devastated area while defending itself against criticism they were slow to react to the disaster, calling it an "ultra-catastrophe" that nobody could have predicted.
"The way these catastrophes unfolded was unprecedented," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters at a Washington briefing. The Bush administration has been roundly criticized by Gulf Coast politicians, Democrats and Republicans for what is being viewed as a slow and inadequate early response to the disaster.
Chertoff called Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding of the city of New Orleans an "ultra-catastrophe" that was "breathtaking in its surprise." He said the back-to-back occurrences "exceeded anybody's foresight."
Asked by reporters if the government's slow response meant that the country was unprepared for another terrorist strike, Chertoff said: "If an ultra-catastrophe occurs, there's going to be some harmful fall-out."
Chertoff said the United States government will now "move heaven and earth to rescue, feed, shelter and restore life and health to the people currently suffering." He said "all of the capabilities and assets" of the federal government will be used to help the Gulf Coast victims.
Earlier in the day, President Bush announced he was sending 7,000 more soldiers and Marines to the Gulf Coast, bringing the number of active duty troops there to about 11,000. The Pentagon also said that an extra 10,000 National Guard troops are being sent to the Gulf Coast as well, raising the number of guardsmen there to about 40,000.
"Hour by hour, the situation on the ground is improving," Bush said. "Yet the enormity of the task requires more resources and more troops."
Looting and sporadic shooting incidents, some aimed at rescue flights, were reported mid-week in New Orleans, frustrating local officials and slowing the rescue effort.
The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael D. Brown, said at a press briefing in Baton Rouge, La., today that there have been no reports of shooting in the past 48 hours because "the military has helped us secure the area." The earlier lawlessness, he said, nearly stopped the rescue and relief efforts.
Bush, who toured the region yesterday, noted that 4,000 active troops already are involved in the hurricane response, primarily working directly on search-and-rescue operations and providing logistical and medical support.
The new forces will include 2,500 troops from the Army's 82nd Airborne and 2,700 from the 1st Cavalry Division and about 2,000 from the Marines' 1st and 2nd Expeditionary forces, military officials said.
"Our priorities are clear," the president said. "We will complete the evacuation as quickly and safely as possible. We will not let criminals prey on the vulnerable and we will not allow bureaucracy to get in the way of saving lives."
The announcement came during Bush's weekly Saturday radio address. However, today the president took the unusual step of delivering the speech from a podium in the Rose Garden at the White House. The administration has been widely criticized for being slow to respond to the disaster.
He was accompanied by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Bush, who last night signed a $10.5 billion emergency aid package passed by Congress for hurricane relief, said, "I know that those of you who have been hit hard by Katrina are suffering. Many are angry and desperate for help. . . . In America, we do not abandon our fellow citizens in their hour of need. And the federal government will do its part."
Meanwhile in New Orleans, large numbers of buses arrived at the besieged convention center Saturday morning to begin a full evacuation. Gen. Mark Graham, deputy commander of the Katrina task force overseeing rescue and relief, told reporters in Baton Rouge that the task could be completed in 24 to 36 hours.
Graham noted, however, that refugees were still arriving at the facility seeking help. He said victims of Hurricane Katrina were also still streaming into the Superdome in New Orleans, although the majority of the people who had been waiting for help in increasingly dire conditions are now gone.
Graham said some 35,000 people have been flown or bused out of the city using 55 planes and 788 commercial buses. Officials have said people were also being moved out of the city by train.
Although rescue planners originally expected to evacuate about 60,000 to 80,000 people, Graham said more residents are constantly being found and he cannot estimate the total number of people left that need evacuation.