An overwhelming majority of Americans believe oil and gas companies are gouging consumers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina but offer mixed reviews of President Bush and the government's initial response to the deadly storm, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The survey conducted Friday night found that 72 percent of the respondents say oil companies and gas suppliers have taken advantage of the storm emergency by raising gasoline prices, which spiked virtually overnight last week to $3 dollars a gallon or more in many areas. Eight in 10 say the federal government's handling of surging gas prices was "not so good" or "poor," the survey found.
"We're pushing $3" a gallon, said John Snell, 63, a retired boiler operator who lives in Fargo, N.D. "It's never been legitimate -- it's just an excuse to raise prices. . . . It's gouging, that's all it is."
The survey also found that Americans were sharply divided over the performance of Bush and local, state and federal governments in the aftermath of Monday's storm. Slightly less than half -- 46 percent -- approve of the way Bush has handled relief efforts while 47 percent disapprove, a result that might offer some cheer to beleaguered White House staffers who feared a stronger negative reaction.
The early response got equally mixed reviews, with 48 percent rating the federal effort as excellent or good and 51 percent saying it was not so good or poor -- views deeply colored by party affiliation. According to the poll, 68 percent of Democrats rated the government's performance as "not so good" or "poor," while 66 percent of Republicans judged it to be "excellent" or "good." This finding shows this national emergency has not united Americans the way the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, did.
Slightly more than four in 10 say the government response revealed serious problems in federal emergency preparedness overall, while a majority (54 percent) disagreed.
"I think they were just a little too late," said Kathy Morrison, 45, a nurse in Jonesboro, Ark., who said she was "appalled" by the government's tardy response. "I just really don't think the government is doing all that they could. I even voted for Bush. I thought he was going to be the best, but I was wrong, I was terribly wrong. I think all he cares about is oil."
But others were satisfied with the way Bush and the government handled the first days of the crisis.
"The federal government, they went in and they took action," said Terry Pattison, 36, a homemaker who lives in Shalimar in the hurricane-vulnerable Florida Panhandle. "I think Bush has done the best he can with what he's dealing with. I mean, this is a major disaster. This is a horrifying thing, this is horrifying, what's happened. And I really feel for the people there."
A total of 501 randomly selected adults were interviewed Friday night after Bush visited the Gulf Coast region and as National Guard troops, emergency supplies and relief workers began moving into the stricken city of New Orleans. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus four percentage points.
Looking back at the devastation, two-thirds of the respondents said the federal government should have been better prepared to deal with a storm of this size. A larger share of the public was critical of state and local governments in the affected states: Three in four said they should have been better prepared.
While critics of Bush's policies in Iraq say the war has made it more difficult for governments to deal with the storm emergency, most Americans are not yet convinced. Just under half (46 percent) said the deployment of National Guard troops and equipment to Iraq had made it harder to deal with the storm's aftermath, but 49 percent said it had not had much effect -- a split that mirrored the public's divided views on the war.
Many are questioning the wisdom of rebuilding sections of New Orleans, a city where many neighborhoods are below sea level and vulnerable to flooding. Only half of those interviewed -- 49 percent -- say the city should be rebuilt where it is but with a stronger levee system to hold back storm water. But nearly as many -- 43 percent -- say low-lying areas should be abandoned, with those homes and businesses rebuilt on higher ground. Since as much as 80 percent of the city lies below sea level, such a radical step would mean many residents would not be able to rebuild in the city.
"I don't think they should rebuild there at all," said Pattison, the Florida Panhandle resident. "If another one hits, and you never know when another will, and we are rebuilding, we'll be doing all this over again. And that seems to me to be a waste of money. Just flushing it."
Russ Moris, 38, an aircraft mechanic in Chicago, said: "You can't say you can't live there no more. People have got their lives there. . . . You can't say, 'All right, we'll just let it stay underwater.' "