NEW ORLEANS – The plan for rebuilding New Orleans and other hurricane-ravaged areas should rest among local residents, not the federal government, President Bush said Monday as he called on Congress to come up with recommendations to improve the country’s disaster response system.
“It’s important for Congress to take a good, close look at what went on,” Bush told reporters during remarks he made while touring the devastated city.
Bush said he's not interested in “second-guessing” the decision-making of local, state and federal officials but in assuring the government can respond to future catastrophes.
“We need to make sure that this country is headed up as well as it can be in order to deal with significant problems and disasters,” he said.
Bush called "preposterous" claims that the war in Iraq had stretched forces too thin to respond to Hurricane Katrina, saying 90,000 of the 400,000 National Guards and Reservists are currently deployed. He said political circumstances in Iraq and the recommendations of generals on the ground will determine the force structure there while adequate numbers are available to assist recovery efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Bush toured storm-ravaged New Orleans on Monday as part of a two-day tour of the Gulf Coast areas struck by Hurricane Katrina two weeks ago. He began his tour on the USS Iwo Jima, an amphibious assault ship now stationed on the Mississippi River. Prior to touring the cities of New Orleans and Gulfport, Miss., Bush received a briefing on the efforts to bring the region back to normal. U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen (search), who took over hurricane relief coordination on Friday, led the briefing.
Bush listened quietly to the presentation and was joined by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (search) and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco. The two have been critical of the federal response to the storm and its aftermath.
The tour is Bush's third in the two weeks since the Category 4 hurricane hit, but the first extensive tour of New Orleans on the ground. Among the areas he toured by military convoy, Bush visited New Orleans’ historic French Quarter, Jacks on Square, By Water District and the 7th Ward. On the tour, Bush and others had to duck to avoid downed wires and branches, some streets still covered in water.
The president later toured by helicopter Chalmette in St. Bernard's Parish, southeast of the city. He touched down to meet with local leaders in a private meeting that focusd on general recovery and rebuilding, health issues and the efforts by federal health and environmental authorities. Among the issues discussed, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan, were spraying for the emerging mosquito problem, cleaning up the oil spills and providing temporary housing.
After the closed-door meeting, the president then headed to Gulfport, Miss., where he toured a relief center run by Christ in Action. The president, accompanied by Gov. Haley Barbour, shook hands and met with workers and displaced persons.
While the visit to the region is Bush's third so far since the disaster, his job-approval rating has suffered over the past two weeks. Public opinion of other agencies has taken a dive, too, according to recent polls.
Bush's overall approval rating is at an all-time low of 42 percent, according to a Time magazine poll, and approval of his handling of the response to the hurricane is at 33 percent. A Newsweek survey found a 37 percent approval for his handling of the hurricane response.
Other agencies are also taking hits in the public's view. The Time poll found that 28 percent approved of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (search) handling of the crisis while 69 percent disapproved; 32 percent approved of actions taken by state and local governments in the storm's wake.
A poll by the Associated Press/Ipsos Public Affairs reported that while more than half quizzed faulted the president for failings in the relief effort, three quarters said state officials should shoulder much of the blame; 67 percent said local officials were culpable; and 63 percent pointed a finger at the federal government.
Alongside public disappointment, the president continues to face criticism from Democrats for his performance.
“Sadly, the federal government’s lack of preparation followed by its inept response had deadly consequences for far too many Americans in Katrina’s path,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said she’s saddened that the White House has undertaken a “full-court press” to blame the sluggish initial response on local and state officials.
In response, McClellan said, “What we’re trying to do is work together with the state and local officials to meet the needs of the people in the region." White House Chief of Staff Andy Card added that he has great confidence in the team being led by Allen, who replaced widely-criticized FEMA Director Mike Brown.
FOX News' Greg Simmons and The Associated Press contributed to the report.