US leaders fight over storm response

Hundreds of thousands of residents along the Gulf of Mexico coast remained homeless on Wednesday after two devastating hurricanes as US leaders fought over the government’s response to the disaster.

The death toll from Saturday’s Hurricane Rita rose to 10 on Tuesday, while the number of dead from Hurricane Katrina passed 1 100 as President George Bush again toured the disaster zone.

Rescuers in helicopters and boats continued to patrol for victims throughout the flooded lowlands and devastated communities as Bush met emergency response leaders at Lake Charles, Louisiana, one of several cities caught in the eye of the storm’s 195kph winds.

It is Bush’s seventh trip to the region since Hurricane Katrina struck on August 29, killing 1 121 people, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless and exposing serious weaknesses in state and federal disaster management.

“I understand there’s a lot of frustration” among people who were scattered by the storm and wanted to “come back to the communities they love”, Bush said.

“But it’s very important for them to understand that now is not the time to come back, until they get the utilities up and running, and until they can get the sewer systems running, and until they get some water people can drink.”

Rita failed to deliver a catastrophe on the scale of the first storm, but it has fed the criticism of US authorities’ response to natural disasters.

Hundreds of thousands of evacuees were stranded on clogged highways when the hurricane hit, while others have found themselves marooned in the disaster zone without assistance.

“Our government sucks. They’re horrible ...
Bush, he dropped food to foreign countries and he can’t get to his own people,” said Christina Guerra (35), of storm-hit Orange, Texas.

‘Victim of the media’

In Washington, Michael Brown, who quit as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency less than two weeks after Katrina, defended himself before a House of Representatives committee tasked with assessing what went wrong.

Brown said he had been a victim of a media slur campaign and blamed local officials, particularly Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, both opposition Democrats, for failing to heed pleas to order mass evacuations.

“I very strongly, personally regret that I was unable to persuade Governor Blanco and mayor Nagin to sit down, get over their differences and work together. I just couldn’t pull that off,” Brown, a Republican, said.

But his responses failed to convince some committee members and have fuelled media and Democratic party allegations that the agency is stacked with Bush “cronies” who are unsuitable for the job.

“As Hurricane Katrina tragically demonstrated, serious consequences result when unqualified cronies are appointed to federal public-safety positions,” Democratic Representative Nancy Pelosi said.

Worries about the bill

Meanwhile, lawmakers and Bush administration officials wrangled over how to pay the immense recovery bill, and how best to get that money to those who need it.

Louisiana has demanded $250-billion in federal aid, including $40-billion to repair the levees of New Orleans, which overflowed after Katrina struck. Mississippi and Alabama are expected to need another $50-million.

Even some of Bush’s own Republicans are worried the bill will cause the federal deficit to spiral, and are pushing for a review of other spending projects already approved. And others want to investigate whether billions of dollars in government funds for relief aid are being wasted.

In Miami, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said contracts proven to be wasteful will be renegotiated.

“If there are contracts that turn out to be not properly cost-effective or inappropriate in some other way, we can redo the contracts, we can renegotiate those contracts,” Chertoff said.

“That’s why we have asked our procurement people to look hard when the invoices come in for contracts, to make sure these are fair and reasonable prices and to make necessary adjustments to assure that there is appropriate performance and that the public is getting value for its money.”

Police chief quits

Meanwhile, New Orleans police chief Eddie Compass quit the force without explanation, saying only “it’s time to hand over the reins to someone else”.

The force is reportedly preparing to conduct a case-by-case investigation into the nearly 250 officers, out of 1 700, who failed to report for duty during Katrina.

Earlier this month, Compass defended his officers, lauding the majority who stayed during the ordeal.

On the economic front, crude oil production in the Gulf—the heart of the US energy industry—remained closed, and more than 78% of natural gas output was offline as a result of the twin storms, official figures showed.

Bush has urged Americans to cut back on driving, and the White House said it would ask government employees to avoid unnecessary travel.—AFP