WASHINGTON – President Bush (search), seeking to stem criticism that a slow federal response has contributed to needless misery, said Saturday he is ordering additional active duty forces to the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast.
"The enormity of the task requires more resources," the president said. "In America we do not abandon our fellow citizens in their hour of need."
Bush said 4,000 active duty troops are already in the area and 7,000 more will arrive in the next 72 hours from the Army's 82nd Airborne from Fort Bragg, N.C., 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, and the Marines' 1st and 2nd Expeditionary forces from Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Those troops will be in addition to some 21,000 National Guard (search) troops already in the region.
The decision came after the president met for nearly an hour with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search), Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and others involved in planning the recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
Bush took the rare step of delivering his Saturday morning radio broadcast live from the White House Rose Garden with Rumsfeld, Chertoff and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by his side.
Bush was resolute and sobering during his remarks, but he smiled when he commented on the people of the region, which he visited Friday.
"When you talk to the proud folks in the area, you see a spirit that cannot be broken," he said.
After returning to Washington late Friday from nearly seven hours spent touring some of the most devastated areas of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, Bush took several more steps in his effort to meet that pledge of support and to recapture the leadership kudos he won after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Bush immediately signed a $10.5 billion disaster aid package passed by Congress — an amount he repeatedly called "just the beginning" of federal expenditures for storm relief. He issued a memorandum saying Hurricane Katrina had created a "severe energy supply interruption" that could damage the national economy, and he formally authorized the release of crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
The White House was planning for a return trip to the damaged area on Monday, scrapping Bush's plans for a Labor Day speech in Maryland in favor of stops in undisclosed parts of the storm-affected region. Aides arranged for a hurricane briefing to be the first item on Bush's daily agenda for the future.
The hurricane forced Bush to cancel his meeting on Wednesday with Chinese President Hu Jintao, the White House said Saturday. The two leaders, who spoke on the phone Saturday morning, agreed that it was best to reschedule the visit. They agreed, however, to meet in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting later this month.
"I'm not going to forget what I've seen," the president said in New Orleans as he ended his tour Friday. "I understand the devastation requires more than one day's attention."
Describing that devastation in Mississippi and elsewhere along the coast that was battered by Katrina's enormous winds, Bush said it was "as if the entire Gulf Coast were obliterated by the worst kind of weapon you can imagine."
Indeed, he walked, drove or flew by incredible destruction — enormous casino barges flung like toys onto dry land, houses collapsed on themselves like decks of cards, staircases leading nowhere, and thousands of only cement squares and piles of debris where buildings used to be.
In New Orleans, where massive flooding from breaches in the city's levees caused the worst problems, Bush talked about the suffering of the people who have gone days without rescue, food, water or medicine — some dying in the process.
But what he experienced of the crisis there was mostly by air. He avoided the lawless parts of New Orleans, where looting has become common and snipers have fired on hospital evacuations. He visited only the airport and the ruptured 17th Street levee where huge sandbags were being dropped by helicopter into the water flowing through the 300-foot breach.
Bush heard plenty, however, during more than an hour of meetings aboard his plane with state and local politicians about why it is taking so long to relieve the misery of so many people in New Orleans who have been living in squalor without the necessities of life.
"He heard some things he didn't want to believe at first," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (news, bio, voting record), D-La. "The president is starting to grasp the magnitude of the situation."
Four days after Katrina killed hundreds if not thousands, Republicans joined Democrats in shaking their heads.
"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?" asked former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican.
Republican Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts called the government's response "an embarrassment."
The criticism stung for a president who won widespread praise for his handling of the terrorist attacks four years ago — and who already is suffering sagging approval ratings in the polls over the Iraq war and gasoline prices that were high even before Katrina wreaked havoc on Gulf of Mexico operations.
Hoping to turn the tide of opinion in his favor, Bush spoke four times publicly on Friday.
"The results are not acceptable," he declared at the beginning of the day.
Along the way, the president promised to restore order in New Orleans, rush food and medicine to the needy and provide temporary housing to those who have lost their homes. Rescuing those still trapped would take a matter of days, he said, and restoring electricity to the millions without it would come within weeks.