WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) hopes his tour of Gulf Coast communities battered by Hurricane Katrina (search) will boost the spirits of increasingly desperate storm victims and their tired rescuers.
The president's visit Friday also was aimed at tamping down some of the criticism that he engineered a too-little, too-late response.
Four days after Katrina made landfall in southeastern Louisiana, Bush was to get a second, closer look at the devastation wrought by the storm's 145 mph winds and 25-foot storm surge in an area stretching from just west of New Orleans (search) to Pensacola, Fla. In all, there are 90,000 square miles under federal disaster declaration.
Beginning in Mobile, Ala., the president was to fly by helicopter over some of the hardest-hit areas along the Alabama and Mississippi coasts and stop at a few points in Mississippi to hear from those on the ground.
Given the chaos of the early days after the storm, Bush's schedule remained fluid up until the last minute. Aides considered limiting his visit to New Orleans, mostly drowned in rank floodwaters and descending in many areas into lawlessness, to only an aerial tour.
Friday's trip follows a 35-minute flyover of the region he took Wednesday aboard Air Force One. It offers Bush more of a firsthand assessment of the progress that has been made since he raced back to Washington to oversee the recovery effort. But, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, the president also was going there to bring, on behalf of the nation, "support and compassion for the victims and our appreciation" for those helping with the ongoing response.
While the president was working his way along the coast, his wife, Laura, was scheduled to be nearby in Lafayette, La. Mrs. Bush was to visit the Cajundome arena to console people who took shelter there.
"This is an agonizing time for the people of the Gulf Coast," Bush said from the Oval Office.
Amid the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, Bush has other problems besides the hurricane: Gasoline prices have soared past $3 a gallon in some places, and support is ebbing for the war in Iraq.
So Bush has tried to respond in a way that evokes the national goodwill he cultivated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — and that does not recall the criticism his father, former President Bush, endured after Hurricane Andrew slammed Florida in 1992.
But the president began facing questions about his leadership in the crisis almost immediately.
Though he cut his August stay at his Texas ranch short by two days to return to Washington, some said he shouldn't have waited until two days after the storm hit to do so.
The president and his aides have repeatedly rattled off specifics about the massive federal response effort under way, from Bush's personal donation to the number of tarps delivered to a $10.5 billion request in emergency aid from Congress to the 28,000 troops sent to the region to help with security and rescues. Some people say the federal government could do more, or do it more quickly, if so many National Guard troops hadn't been sent to Iraq.
Also, there already are questions about funding for the Army Corps of Engineers' part in managing the levees that protected New Orleans, especially given years of warnings that the network of barriers was inadequate for the largest storms.
The White House on Thursday made available top Corps officials to assure reporters that cuts to the agency's budget did not cause the Katrina disaster. Even though the administration has chronically cut back on the Corps' own requests for funding — including two key New Orleans-area projects — White House officials trumpeted the administration's support for the Corps.
"Flood control has been a priority of this administration from Day One," McClellan said.
The White House sought to strike a balance, by brushing off inside-the-Beltway second-guessing while also showing sympathy for the concerns of those in the region who say aid is not coming fast enough.
"For those on the ground who are still in need of assistance, I think they would tell you that it hasn't," McClellan said. "I think that that's something that, over time, will be able to be addressed and looked at."
But he added: "This is not a time for finger-pointing or playing politics."
That didn't stop Terry Ebbert, the head of emergency operations for New Orleans, from speaking his mind.
"This is a national emergency. This is a national disgrace," said Ebbert. He said it had taken too long to evacuate the Superdome, a sports complex that quickly became a squalid shelter for tens of thousands of storm victims.
"FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control," he said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can't bail out the city of New Orleans."
Bush announced Thursday that he had asked two former presidents — his father and Bill Clinton — to head an appeal for public donations to help hurricane victims. The two men performed a similar role in the wake of the tsunami that struck nations along the Indian Ocean last year.