President Bush on Wednesday described Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing floods that have submerged New Orleans, ravaged the Gulf Coast region and left thousands feared dead as “one of the worst natural disasters in our nation’s history” and predicted that recovery would take years.
At the same time, the president, in a nationally televised address, vowed to rebuild the historic Louisiana city known as the “Big Easy” and said he is putting the federal government’s financial and regulatory resources and manpower behind the recovery efforts. He also called on Americans to contribute cash to charity hurricane relief.
“The folks on the Gulf Coast are going to need the help of this country for a long time,” Bush said from the Rose Garden, surrounded by members of his Cabinet. “But there’s no doubt in my mind we’re going to succeed. Right now the days seem awfully dark for those affected, I understand that. But I’m confident that with time, you get your life back in order, new communities will flourish, the great city of New Orleans will be back on its feet, and America will be a stronger place for it. The country stands with you. We’ll do all in our power to help you.”
Bush spoke shortly after attending a special task force briefing Wednesday afternoon. He had returned to Washington only hours earlier, having wrapped up a series of speeches in the West in recent days meant to shore up support for the war in Iraq, and having decided to cut short his summer vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and get back to the nation’s capital as the breadth of the Gulf Coast tragedy emerged.
At a press conference earlier in the day, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and officials overseeing national health, energy, transportation, environment and defense responses laid out some of the parameters of the coordinated response so far: _ Federal officials are trying to contain the hurricane’s spillover effect on the nation’s economy and on oil prices. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said the White House would open up the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve to loan crude oil to refiners starting this week. The announcement was aimed at countering prices and steadying supply. Crude and especially gasoline prices surged after the hurricane shut down most oil and natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico. Even with access to more crude, loss of electricity could hold back many refineries. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah called the president to offer his condolences and aid.
_ The Environmental Protection Agency is relaxing clean-air standards nationwide through mid-September, to allow gasoline with higher pollutant levels to be used in order to keep gas prices under control as consumers eye prices approaching $3 per gallon heading into the Labor Day weekend.
_ A public health emergency has been declared for the Gulf region. The federal government is making preparations for as many as 40 medical shelters to be established throughout the region, with 10,000 beds and 4,000 medical personnel. Pallets of first aid equipment are being shipped in, and preparations are being made to treat cholera, typhoid, dehydration, food poisoning and disease from sewage, tainted water and mosquitoes.
_ Federal officials are helping local public and private groups find temporary and longer-term housing for tens of thousands of residents of the affected areas. Many were being bused to the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. Alabama was looking at putting the displaced in cabins located in state parks. So far, more than 78,000 people are in shelters.
_ The Department of Defense is deploying 11,000 members of the National Guard from across the country; eight ships to help with medical and transportation needs; eight swift-water rescue teams from California; a 500-bed mobile hospital; and millions of MREs, sealed, dehydrated food used by the military. Federal transportation officials had moved 13.4 million liters of water, 3.4 million pounds of ice and 144 generators into the region and were focusing on reopening key oil pipelines, highways, airports and seaports and inspecting bridges. Officials were aware of reports of looting but said state and local officials largely seemed to be in a position to manage responses.
Katrina is the first disaster to be designated an “incident of national significance” under a new system that coordinates federal disaster responses through the Department of Homeland Security.
“The magnitude of this challenge is enormous,” Chertoff said. “I anticipate this is going to be a very, very substantial effort. I don’t even think we have fully assessed all of the collateral consequences that are going to have to be dealt with.”
Calls to evacuate New Orleans and nearby coastal areas came over the weekend. Katrina made landfall on Monday near Biloxi, Miss., and was initially estimated to have killed more than 100 people. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida were declared major disaster areas. But it was the bursting of two levees on Tuesday, flooding New Orleans, drowning, electrocuting or trapping residents who hadn’t gotten out in time and wiping out much of the city’s infrastructure, that have made the storm a crisis of such indisputably massive _ but still unknown _ proportion. Financial damage could be in the tens of billions and officials said they believe the death toll may be in the thousands, not the hundreds.
The president’s flight back from Texas on Wednesday took him over some of the devastation Katrina left in its wake, as Air Force One dropped to between 1,700 feet and 2,500 feet over New Orleans and Slidell in Louisiana, and Biloxi and Pascagoula in Mississippi. Bush expects to visit damaged areas later this week, but those details had not been set.
“I can’t tell you how devastating the sights were,” the president said in his address.