A Sept. 12 article misspelled the name of the amphibious assault ship serving as a command center for Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. It is the USS Iwo Jima, not the Iowa Jima. (Published 9/15/2005)
President Bush arrived in flood-ravaged New Orleans last evening amid continued criticism of his administration's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, but as officials reported tentative progress in the mammoth recovery effort.
Bush was scheduled to spend the night on the USS Iowa Jima, an amphibious assault ship that is the recovery command center. He plans today to tour the devastated city and neighboring parishes, to be briefed by rescuers and to meet with local officials before traveling to Gulfport, Miss., to review relief efforts there.
Bush's third visit to the devastated region in nine days comes as he is struggling to assert his leadership after a calamity that has spawned bitter exchanges between local and federal officials. Meanwhile, Bush's approval ratings have tumbled to new lows.
In the hours before Bush's arrival in New Orleans, Louisiana's Democratic senator alleged that the administration seeks to blame others for its mistakes.
"While the president is saying he wants to work together as a team, I think the White House operatives have a full-court press on to blame state and local officials, whether they're Republicans or Democrats," Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
"We've tried to work together with state and local officials," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and other administration officials have defended the federal response, and have emphasized shortcomings in evacuation and emergency procedures by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D).
Blanco defended her state at Houston's Reliant Center, where many evacuees were sent to shelter, saying: Louisiana had a "well-thought-out exit plan. . . . We did a massive evacuation, and if we hadn't, we would have had thousands of deaths. Right now, the numbers are minimal when you consider the amount of damage."
She refused to blame Bush for the slow federal response: "Help in those critical moments was slow in coming, not through any fault of the president."
Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," Nagin said that Bush "for some reason probably did not understand the full magnitude of this catastrophe on the front end."
Nagin also repeated his sharp criticism of the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He joined members of both parties in praising the administration for its decision Friday to remove FEMA chief Michael D. Brown from Katrina oversight responsibilities.
In Biloxi, Miss., local officials said FEMA has yet to set up a disaster relief center, leaving storm-shocked residents with little access to federal help.
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, who is now in charge of federal Katrina-related operations, said on "Fox News Sunday" that he is focusing on "unifying effort" among levels of government to cut through the bureaucracy.
As thousands of National Guard troops, active-duty military and law enforcement officers from around the nation patrolled New Orleans, some residents were allowed back in to inspect their battered homes. Meanwhile, crews continued searching door to door for survivors and the dead. The official death toll in the city rose to 197.
Health officials announced plans to begin spraying for mosquitoes and flies, which are multiplying amid the slowly receding floodwaters. Engineers have said it will probably take a month to drain the city.
The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport reopened for cargo traffic and will resume limited commercial flights tomorrow.
Before flying to New Orleans yesterday, Bush participated in a White House ceremony to mark the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with a moment of silence. Those attacks produced the iconic moment of his presidency, when he jumped atop a wrecked firetruck amid the smoldering rubble of the World Trade Center with a bullhorn and gave rescue workers an impromptu rallying cry that echoed around the world. "I can hear you," he called out to those straining to catch his words. "The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon."
With Hurricane Katrina having spread destruction across 90,000 square miles of the Gulf Coast, Bush faces a catastrophe greater in many ways than Sept. 11. But he has struggled to recapture the imagery that would project that confidence and decisiveness.
Last evening, Bush visited a staging area outside New Orleans that is temporary headquarters for rescue workers. He posed for pictures with firefighters near a Fire Department of New York truck that had been donated by New Orleans after the Sept. 11 attacks. "God Bless America," read a banner hanging next to the truck. "Never Forget."
Bush then entered a sweltering mess tent, where he greeted workers as sweat poured down his face and soaked his shirt.
Administration and Republican Party officials have focused on the huge scale of the recovery effort to demonstrate the president's resolve. The Republican National Committee released a statement saying more than 71,000 troops, National Guard personnel and other federal officers have responded, helping to save 45,000 lives and house nearly 182,000 people in 559 shelters.
"They were so far behind, additional presidential attention in my judgment probably isn't too much," said Steve Ricchetti, deputy chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.
Still, presidential visits also impose burdens on those on the ground at the very moment they are occupied with critical tasks. Fifty firefighters who rushed from around the country to help with recovery found their first assignment last Monday was to stand beside Bush as he toured devastated areas, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
The White House is sensitive to the notion of getting in the way. Bush decided not to go to the Gulf Coast until four days after the hurricane smashed ashore because he did not want to interfere, aides said. Now as they arrange return visits, aides said they try hard to avoid impeding recovery efforts.
Personal visits have a way of reorienting the public impression of a president in times of crisis. Kenneth M. Duberstein, chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan, said Bush needs to think beyond this trip to the region.
"There needs to be a Bush vision for the future of New Orleans," he said. "I think a very presidential speech reporting to the country on progress to date and, more significantly, a vision to the future of New Orleans and the region is something that needs to happen sooner rather than later."
Staff writers Keith L. Alexander in New Orleans, Dan Eggen in Washington and Evelyn Nieves in Biloxi contributed to this report.