CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Carrying the painful lessons of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush said on a tour of Midwest flooding on Thursday that he is listening to small-town concerns and understands the exhaustion of rescuers.
"Obviously, to the extent we can help immediately, we will help," Bush said during a briefing from local and federal officials at a cinderblock emergency operations center set up here at a local community college.
Noting that several hundred federal emergency workers are fanning across Iowa, he added: "That ought to help the people in the smaller communities know that somebody is there to listen to them."
Afterward, Bush was taking an aerial tour of some of the damage from flooding that has forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes across six states. On his first tour of the Midwest since heavy rains sent rivers surging over their banks, he was then also visiting Iowa City. In all, he was to be in the flood zone for less than three hours.
Bush was in Europe when the severe weather hit last week, but he made a point to try to show his deep concern while overseas. His Iowa trip came just two days after he returned from abroad.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa's second-largest city, has endured its worst flooding ever. The town was submerged in a dirty lake by the Cedar River, which crested almost 20 feet above flood stage. Now, though the floodwaters have receded, trash is everywhere and businesses and families are trying to determine what can be salvaged.
In Iowa City, a college town about 30 miles to the southeast, the damage was more limited when the Iowa River topped its banks. At least 16 buildings at the University of Iowa were affected and hundreds of homes took on water.
Across the region, heavy rains have washed out millions of acres of prime farm and grazing lands, raising the likelihood that already soaring food prices could go even higher.
At the briefing, Bush, his shirtsleeves rolled up, saw before and after pictures of the town. The post-flood shots showed most buildings covered by water.
The president told local officials he came "just to listen to what you've got on your mind" and to show that the federal government is concerned about small towns as much as it is about big cities.
Looking across the room of local officials and military personnel, who have taken part in grueling search-and-rescue efforts, he said: "You're exhausted and I understand that."
FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison, accompanying Bush on Air Force One, praised the "great coordination" between federal, state and local leaders. Bush also was accompanied by two Democratic lawmakers from Iowa, Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. Dave Loebsack.
The sluggish federal response when Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast was judged woefully inadequate and brought heavy criticism of Bush and FEMA.
But Paulison said FEMA was working better this time with other partners — the Army Corps of Engineers and even Wal-Mart — to distribute supplies. He said more than 3.3 million liters of water, 200,000 ready-to-eat meals and 4,000 rolls of plastic sheeting have been distributed. The agency also is placing stocks of sandbags and other supplies in states or towns where flooding hasn't hit yet or material has not been requested, just to be ready.
"Another lesson learned from Katrina," he said.
He said 28,000 people have registered for federal assistance. The average response time at FEMA's 24-hour call line is 12 seconds — compared to response times that sometimes took hours during Katrina, he said.
Now a housing task is being formed in every state. Housing is the next big challenge.
At least 24 people have been killed in the recent flooding and tornadoes, the majority in Iowa. At least 35,000 people have been forced out of their homes.
Paulison said Bush wanted to go to disaster sites himself to ask the state and local officials what they need, to make sure they're getting it — even to make sure that his federal team is giving him the right information.
"It gives him a good visual of what's going on," Paulison said. "When we get back to the plane, I get 40 questions."
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumed Republican nominee for president, was also visiting Iowa Thursday in a tour separate from Bush's. His opponent, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, helped fill sandbags over the weekend in Quincy, Ill.