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As criticism mounts, Bush tours Gulf Coast

President Bush, Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff (second from right), and FEMA chief Michael Brown (center).
President Bush, Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff (second from right), and FEMA chief Michael Brown (center).

WASHINGTON -- As President Bush surveyed the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina yesterday, a political storm brewed in Washington, unleashing a bipartisan wave of anger that started with the government's slow response to the disaster and extended to the war in Iraq, high gas prices, and race.

Senate majority leader Bill Frist called for congressional hearings, and other Republicans normally loyal to Bush questioned whether the administration could handle a terrorist attack, given its lackluster response to Katrina. African-American lawmakers, meanwhile, bemoaned what they called inadequate help to some of the nation's poorest and least powerful citizens, and congressional offices said they were deluged with calls from constituents angry about spiraling gas prices.

Bush said the results of initial hurricane relief efforts ''are not acceptable," though he later tempered his comments while touring the damage.

Senator John Kyl, Republican of Arizona, said the federal response suggested flaws in the nation's preparedness for another terrorist assault.

''This damage could just as easily have been caused by a terrorist attack, and many if not most of the same elements are involved in responding to natural disasters," Kyl said. ''There has to be a plan in place -- along with adequate resources -- to be able to evacuate people, or at least provide relief supplies before panic sets in. None of this appears to have been done in Louisiana."

Others linked the crisis to another issue that has dragged President Bush's public approval ratings to record lows: the protracted war in Iraq, which Democrats said was siphoning money and National Guard resources from a domestic disaster.

''Where are our National Guard when we need them? They're over in Iraq," said Representative Diane Watson, Democrat of California. ''It is not rocket science. Why is it that the monies that people pay and are collected as taxes are going elsewhere?"

Asked about it by reporters in Biloxi, Miss., Bush rejected that notion.

''I just completely disagree. We've got a job to defend this country and the war on terror, and we've got a job to bring aid and comfort to the people of the Gulf Coast, and we'll do both," he said. ''We've got plenty of resources to do both."

In Biloxi, where he hugged hurricane victims and chatted with local officials, Bush acknowledged for the first time yesterday that the results of initial relief efforts ''are not acceptable," but later tempered his comments to say that he was referring only to the looting and violence in New Orleans and not the government's response.

''I'm satisfied with the response. I'm not satisfied with the results," Bush said.

Bush met with some displaced residents, walking arm-in-arm and comforting two weeping young women, telling them softly to ''hang in there." Later, the president took an aerial tour of the damage in New Orleans, where tensions are high and people are still trapped in the devastated city.

Bush -- who got high marks for his leadership, compassion, and military certitude in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- looked uncomfortable and grim yesterday as he viewed the aftermath of a disaster caused not by terrorists, but by nature.

Stu Rothenberg, an independent political analyst, said the hurricane crisis could create big headaches for Bush and other Republicans if Americans conclude he was not up to the task of taking care of Americans at home.

''It's certainly possible this could become a defining event for people," Rothenberg said. ''I think if people feel personally he dropped the ball on this, it could become a problem for him."

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus yesterday blasted Bush for his failure to quickly address a crisis that has largely affected poor African-Americans.

With the president criticized for a late and slow response, the White House also dispatched two of the administration's most popular figures to meet with storm and flood victims: Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. As Laura Bush met with hurricane victims in Lafayette, La., Rice -- who grew up in central Alabama -- announced yesterday she will tour the area to assess how to use the offers of aid and manpower pouring in from foreign nations, including some of the world's poorest countries.

Rice, who is African-American, dismissed suggestions that race was a factor in the response to the deepening crisis in New Orleans, which has a predominantly black population. ''I just don't believe it," Rice said.

But many Americans and their congressional representatives seethed over the nation's domestic and foreign troubles yesterday.

Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Malden, said he passed a constituent who had just paid more than $60 to fill her gas tank. ''Get rid of Bush," Markey said the woman yelled out her car window.

''We're just being swamped with calls on both subjects -- energy prices and their disgust at how poorly the Bush administration has responded to this catastrophe," Markey said.

A CBS poll released yesterday showed Bush's approval ratings at an all-time low of 41 percent. Historically, presidents' approval ratings tend to increase during a national crisis.

Though Bush praised Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for his work, Republican leaders in the Senate said yesterday they would conduct oversight hearings into FEMA's response to the catastrophe -- a highly unusual act by a Republican-led Congress normally reluctant to investigate officials in its dominant party.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders ranging from Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to former House speaker Newt Gingrich criticized the rescue effort.

''I think it puts into question all of the Homeland Security and Northern Command planning for the last four years, because if we can't respond faster than this to an event we saw coming across the Gulf for days, then why do we think we're prepared to respond to a nuclear or biological attack?" said Gingrich, who represented Georgia in Congress.

Republican Senators Herb Kohl of Wisconsin and Mike DeWine of Ohio asked the Bush administration to look into reports of price gouging by gas sellers. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a Republican and the House majority whip, delivered an unusually critical assessment of the federal response, saying public safety should have been secured before rescue missions began.

''I hope lessons have been learned that we have to respond more quickly, we have to respond in the right ways, and be sure our priorities are right," said Blunt, normally a strong ally of the Bush administration.

Louisiana lawmakers in both parties were deeply unhappy with the relief effort, lauding the House's final passage yesterday of $10.5 billion in preliminary aid but wondering why the process wasn't moving more quickly.

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