It was almost as if the rewind button had been pushed: Another sticky Florida day. Another hurricane-battered town. Another helicopter swooping President Bush into a devastation zone.
At least the coast was different.
This time, Bush toured Florida's east coast, briefly handing out supplies to Hurricane Frances victims in this struggling town three weeks after inspecting the damage caused by Hurricane Charley on Florida's west coast. The president and his brother Gov. Jeb Bush (R) stood side by side at a distribution center, loading diapers, shaking hands and checking out the wheels.
"Fine-looking car," the president said to his brother when a mud-covered Lincoln pulled up. "I used to have one just like it."
A pickup truck drove up, and Bush lifted 32 half-liter bottles of water into the bed.
"Thanks for coming by," he said.
Bush's visit to Fort Pierce and the neighboring town of Port St. Lucie placed him at the center of one of the most contentious points in Florida, which still has nearly 1 million customers without power since Frances hit the state last weekend. The St. Lucie County administrator, Doug Anderson, had complained for days before the president's visit about what he called "broken commitments" and a slow response to the storm by state and federal agencies.
Hours before Bush arrived, Anderson told reporters that he received a direct call from Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who asked what the federal government could do to address his concerns. Anderson said he needed power restored, temporary shelters, and ice, water and food.
Later in the day, Bush's motorcade traveled to St. Lucie County's windowless, concrete emergency operations center for a 20-minute meeting with Anderson. The president told him to "hang in there -- help's on the way," Anderson told reporters afterward.
"We obviously have both the federal and the state governments' attention now," he said.
Several miles away, in the long ice lines across from the Hurricane IV carwash, word of Bush's visit was a pleasant surprise to many.
"It's great. This is the time we need him -- a disaster time," said Febbie Carthon, 70, a retired a furniture upholstery shop owner and lifetime Democrat, as she inched her car forward.
But April Weather, 24, sat a few cars back and deemed the visit "all about campaigning."
Cars diverted from roads around the emergency center streamed all morning past Tim Gaver's house, now wrapped in tarp because his shingles had been scraped off by Frances. Gaver, 54, a farm chemical salesman, said he hopes Bush's presence would "jack up some bureaucrats to get things done."
Before flying to Florida, Bush signed emergency legislation -- pushed through Congress at his request -- allocating $2 billion to help the state's recovery from Charley and Frances. Charley, which hit north of Fort Myers and traveled north toward Orlando, caused an estimated $7 billion in damage. The damage figure from Frances, which landed north of West Palm Beach and moved across the state to the Florida Panhandle, is expected to be slightly lower.
The remnants of Frances flooded people out of their homes and businesses, and tornadoes touched down in Virginia and North Carolina. Emergency officials in Virginia reported more than 8 inches of rain, and there were reports of a tornado touching down in Bowling Green. In North Carolina, with a foot or more of rain over a day and a half, rivers poured out of their banks. There were reports of mud and rock slides in the western part of the state. Officials said six tornadoes touched down in North Carolina.
As the president toured the state, Floridians were uneasily looking toward the south, where enormous Hurricane Ivan was churning across the Caribbean. Ivan pounded Grenada on Wednesday, killing at least 12 people.
Ivan is on a path similar to Charley's, which could take it across Cuba and on to the west coast of Florida by Monday, according to long-range projections. Weary of storms, many residents simply left their hurricane shutters and plywood in place, giving an eerie sense of impending trouble to streets from Miami Beach to West Palm Beach.
The forecasts that have made Florida fear a third bout of hurricane winds come from an office of the National Hurricane Center in Miami, which has become one of the most recognizable television scenes. Bush visited there, too.
"Once again," Bush said in brief televised remarks from the center, "Florida has faced the devastation of a hurricane, and once again the people of Florida are showing their character and their strength and their deep concern for their neighbors."