Bush denies racism in Katrina response

United States President George Bush denied on Monday there was any racial component to people being left behind after Hurricane Katrina, despite suggestions from some critics that the response would have been quicker if so many of the victims hadn’t been poor and black.

“The storm didn’t discriminate and neither will the recovery effort,” Bush said. “The rescue efforts were comprehensive. The recovery will be comprehensive.”

Bush made the remarks to reporters at the end of a tour that took him through several flooded New Orleans neighbourhoods.

Occasionally, Bush had to duck to avoid low-hanging electrical wires and branches.

It was Bush’s first exposure to the on-the-ground leadership of his new hurricane-relief chief.
The federal response to the disaster has been roundly criticised as sluggish and inept.

Bush rejected suggestions that the US military was stretched too thinly with the war in Iraq to deal with the Gulf Coast devastation.

“We’ve got plenty of troops to do both,” the president said. “It is preposterous to claim that the engagement in Iraq meant there weren’t enough troops. We’re moving on, we’re going to solve these problems.”

Bush also clarified his now-criticised remark that no one had anticipated the levees being breached. He said he was referring to that “sense of relaxation in a critical moment” when many people initially thought the storm had not inflicted heavy damage on the city.

Amid the rescue and recovery effort, Bush said: “We’re beginning to think through how to reconstitute this really important state and city.”

Bush, on a two-day visit to hurricane-affected areas, started the day with a briefing on the federal response effort aboard the USS Iwo Jima, a command centre for military operations. The slideshow presentation, which covered the latest relief and recovery efforts in three states, was conducted in the ship’s ward room by coast-guard Vice-Admiral Thad Allen, who replaced embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) director Michael Brown as federal hurricane commander last Friday.

Bush was seated between New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco—both of whom have been critical of the federal response in Hurricane Katrina’s wake. The president, who hadn’t previously said a public word after arriving in the region on Sunday afternoon, remained silent during a brief period in which reporters were allowed to witness the briefing.

But White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said: “I have great confidence” in the team now running the federal effort.

Bush then toured the flooded city in a convoy of military trucks. Later, he was to tour hard-hit surrounding parishes by helicopter, touching down to meet with local leaders, and then was traveling to Gulfport, Mississippi.

It was Bush’s first up-close look in the two weeks since Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast and drowned this storied city. He had visited on ground last week in Mississippi and at the New Orleans airport and had made two previous airborne inspection tours.

After arriving in New Orleans on Sunday, Bush travelled through the nearly deserted town to visit “Tent City”, the campus of the Our Lady of Holy Cross College that is now the massive staging area for hundreds of weary and dirty but enthusiastic firefighters from around the country.

The president spent Sunday night aboard the Iwo Jima, a military amphibious assault ship docked in the Mississippi River just behind the city’s convention centre—now eerily empty but still strewn with piles of trash—that was the scene of so much misery in the days after the storm.

The trip is Bush’s third and longest to the disaster area, and it came as the White House is eager to show the president displaying hands-on, empathetic leadership in the storm effort.

More than half of respondents in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll last week said he is at fault for the slow response.

Bush has seen flooded New Orleans twice from the air—from aboard Air Force One on the way back to the White House from his Texas ranch two days after Katrina hit, and again from a helicopter two days after that, when he made his first on-the-ground visit to storm-ravaged areas of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Although he stopped at the New Orleans airport and went to the site of one of the breached levees on the edge of the city, Bush had stayed far from the epicentre of the city’s suffering.

The city’s devastation is immense, but the situation has improved markedly in the past week. Law and order has been restored to New Orleans and looting curtailed; the Superdome stadium and city convention centre where many took refuge are empty; the water level is going down as workers begin to drain the city; and some power is being restored.—Sapa-AP

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