Amid a surge of denunciations from political leaders in both parties, President Bush agreed yesterday that the results of his administration's response to Hurricane Katrina have been "not acceptable" and flew to the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast for a day-long tour of the devastation.
As a sometimes teary-eyed president hugged victims and inspected damage he described as "worse than imaginable," he promised to see the region through "the darkest days." But frustration that has been building in the days since the hurricane submerged New Orleans and wiped out sections of Mississippi and Alabama erupted with intense ferocity from refugee centers to the halls of Congress.
The criticism of the federal government's response came from across the political spectrum, including former president Bill Clinton, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the Congressional Black Caucus and a sputtering, angry mayor of New Orleans. A Senate committee plans to open hearings next week into what critics called a sluggish response that has left many thousands of people hungry, homeless and hopeless.
While both parties rallied behind Bush's request for $10.5 billion for initial emergency aid, enabling him to sign it last night, lawmakers and other politicians lambasted the administration. Democrats accused Bush of a failure of leadership at a desperate moment. Republicans focused their fire on Bush's government, rather than the president, but were at times scathing.
Bush, who almost never publicly acknowledges mistakes, paid deference to the rage yesterday with a rare concession that his administration's efforts fell short in the opening days of the crisis. "The results are not acceptable," he told reporters on the South Lawn before leaving the White House for his tour of afflicted areas. He added: "We'll get on top of this situation, and we're going to help people that need help."
At his first stop in Mobile, Ala., he repeated the promise. "If it's not going exactly right, we're going to make it go exactly right," Bush vowed. "If there's problems, we're going to address the problems. And that's what I've come down to assure people of."
By the time he reached Biloxi, Miss., though, he tried to refashion his "not acceptable" judgment. He said his earlier comments were "not denigrating the efforts of anybody," and added: "I am satisfied with the response. I'm not satisfied with all the results." During a separate trip to Lafayette, La., however, Laura Bush drew no such distinction. "This response is not an adequate response," she said.
The president appeared stunned by what he saw on the ground. He choked up and had difficulty talking at first after listening to a briefing by Govs. Haley Barbour (R) of Mississippi and Bob Riley (R) of Alabama. His motorcade had to dodge fallen trees when later driving around Biloxi. When Bush got out of the limousine, he came across two distraught sisters who had nothing but the clothes they were wearing.
"We don't have anything," one of them said.
He gathered them both into his arms, kissed them on their heads and walked with them for a while. "Hang in there," he told them.
But the problems with the response were evident during the same encounter. When the women said they needed clothes, Bush directed them to a nearby Salvation Army center. A man accompanying him corrected the president: "It's wiped out," he said.
"It's as if the entire Gulf Coast were obliterated by the worst kind of weapon you can imagine," Bush said at another point. As he left New Orleans, Bush said: "I'm going to fly out of here in a minute, but I want you to know that I'm not going to forget what I've seen. I understand the devastation requires more than one day's attention."
What started out as a humanitarian crisis has rapidly spawned a political crisis for the president. Unlike the aftermath of the terrorist attacks four years ago, when both parties rallied behind the president for a rare moment of national unity, Bush has come under withering fire for not taking the hurricane seriously enough at first and for not mobilizing a quicker, more extensive response.
"They don't have a clue what's going on down here," an exasperated New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin told a local talk radio station during an interview in which he shouted and wept. "Get off your asses, and let's do something."
The Congressional Black Caucus convened a news conference to complain about inadequate efforts to help dislocated residents, many of whom are African American. "I'm ashamed of America," said Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.). "I'm outraged by the lack of response by our federal government."
A succession of Democrats marched to the House floor to vent. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) called the federal response "nothing short of a national disgrace" and compared the president's slow return from his Texas vacation to when he "dropped everything" to fly back to Washington to sign legislation intervening in the case of brain-damaged Terri Schiavo. "The president said an hour ago that the Gulf Coast looks like it has been obliterated by a weapon," noted Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio). "It has. Indifference is a weapon of mass destruction."
Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) said in an interview he waited 90 minutes to meet with Bush in New Orleans, and was never let through. "All the president's visit did was tie up New Orleans for a couple of hours," he said.
Clinton offered his own veiled criticism just a day after joining Bush in the Oval Office and accepting the assignment of helping to raise funds for disaster relief. "There's a lot of emergency things that have to be done, and I was glad to hear the president finally say today the situation is unacceptable, because it is," Clinton told an audience in Syracuse, N.Y.
Feeling freed by Bush's comment, many Republicans seconded his criticism. "I agree with the president's comments this morning that the response so far has been unacceptable," said House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who accompanied Bush on his tour of Louisiana, was harsher. In an interview in Baton Rouge, he said the federal relief effort has been an "operational failure," adding that he would tell Bush that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been "completely dysfunctional and completely overwhelmed. . . . There was no coherent plan for dealing with this scenario."
Gingrich told the Associated Press that the government's performance "puts into question all of the Homeland Security and Northern Command planning for the last four years," and urged Bush to tap former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) to take over the response.
Frist, a Bush ally, directed Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, to hold hearings so the government can "be more effective in responding to any future disasters." Collins announced that hearings would begin Wednesday.
Some said Congress should go further and appoint an independent commission in the style of the panel that investigated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"The federal government's response to this natural disaster has been inexcusable," former congressman Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.), a member of the Sept. 11 commission, said in an interview. "They should form a commission to look into the mistakes."
Staff writers Charles Babington and Dan Balz in Washington and Jacqueline L. Salmon in Baton Rouge, La., and research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.