FORT PIERCE, Fla. – President Bush on Wednesday helped distribute bottled water, bags of ice, food and $2 billion in federal aid to hurricane-battered residents of this vital electoral state.
"We're working as hard as we can to get them the supplies they need. That's what we're here for," Bush said, working shoulder-to-shoulder with brother Jeb, Florida's governor, as he hoisted supplies into a line of waiting cars.
Before leaving the White House, Bush signed a bill allocating the emergency infusion of $2 billion, rushed through the Republican-controlled Congress the night before. Bush said he was certain to ask for more money as needs are assessed.
Almost all the $2 billion will go to replenish disaster relief funds of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (search). The legislation also designates $30 million for Small Business Administration (search) loan programs.
Flying by helicopter along Florida's Atlantic coast, Bush saw signs of Hurricane Frances' (search) destruction: snapped power lines, damaged roofs covered in blue tarps and a toppled awning at a gas station. It was not a devastated area, but scattered destruction and boarded-up houses stood as testament to the fear that Frances had evoked in residents.
Bush flew about 130 miles south over the Everglades to Miami for a briefing at the National Hurricane Center (search), where he saw a Mission Control-like room with forecasting computers that showed storms churning around the world.
"The people of this state are overcoming adversity once again," Bush said into a bank of TV cameras meant to carry his message to Florida residents. "Once again, Florida has faced the devastation of a hurricane, and once again the people of Florida are showing their character."
It was Bush's third trip in 31/2 weeks to reassure Floridians. "People all across this country know what you've been through and care deeply about you," he said. Bush inspected damage from Hurricane Charley (search) on Aug. 15, and visited with emergency aid workers in Miami on Aug. 27.
Wednesday also was the 27th time Bush has visited the state that decided the contested 2000 presidential election.
As cars lined up at a relief center in Fort Pierce, the president pitched in personally.
"What can we help you with? Ice? Ice and water? A little food?" he asked one driver.
"You doing OK?" Bush asked another car full of people. "The water's on? Good."
As Bush peered into each car's passenger window, a Secret Service agent leaned into the driver's side, keeping a close eye. White House aides hovered nearby, ensuring that a mob of journalists captured the scene of the president as empathizer in chief.
"Oh, you lost your trailer?" Bush said to one passenger.
"Hang in there," he urged another.
Hurricane Frances and its remnants have been blamed for at least 19 deaths in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, along with two earlier in the Bahamas.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Ivan (search) roared toward the United States. Asked whether he expected to return next week to another scene of destruction, Bush shook his head and said, "Hope not."