Bush, Congress Get Defensive

As lawlessness, distress, disease and death settled in on New Orleans and other affected areas, President Bush and Congress took steps Thursday to restore order and blunt criticism that the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina has been slow or inadequate.

The president, on the defensive, appeared twice on television. On ABC’s “Good Morning America” he acknowledged victims’ anxiety and sense of urgency but promised “there’s a lot of help coming,” and he asked his critics to “not play politics.”

In the afternoon at the White House, he was flanked by his father, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. The two former presidents successfully raised money to help the tsunami relief effort for South Asia earlier this year. Now, the president has tapped the bipartisan team to lead private fund-raising efforts for Katrina relief and to defend the administration’s response.

“I believe the administration is doing the right thing, and I believe they have acted in a timely fashion,” the elder Bush said later in an interview with CNN. “They’re facing problems that nobody could foresee: breaking of the levees and the whole dome thing over in New Orleans coming apart.”

In the same interview, Clinton added, “There’s a confident effort under way. People are doing the best they can.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, meanwhile, called their members back early from a summer break that was supposed to last through Labor Day. Congress is expected to vote by the weekend on an initial round of emergency appropriations worth $10.5 billion.

White House Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolten said in a conference call Thursday that the appropriation is a stopgap measure expected to last weeks, not months.

“We do not have a good sense of the numbers at this point, of how much the recovery from this disaster ultimately is likely to cost,” he said.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called for the formation of a congressional task force to respond to needs as they emerge.

The president was scheduled to travel to portions of the Gulf Coast Friday to survey the damage. On Thursday, he sought to assure those directly affected as well as Americans in other parts of the country that matters were under control.

Bush said he sees the damage to the nation’s energy infrastructure and its effect on gasoline supply and prices as “a temporary disruption that is being addressed by the government and by the private sector.”

And he said, “As we speak, people are moving into the New Orleans area to maintain law and order.” Officials said additional National Guard troops were on their way.

But those assurances didn’t match the situation on the ground.

Throughout the day, reports from New Orleans indicated thousands of survivors, including at the city’s convention center and hospitals, had no food or water, and were watching people die before their eyes.

Sewage systems were spilling over. Hospitals and arenas lacked security. There were reports, official and unofficial, of rapes, of criminals wielding weapons and of sniper fire threatening hospital evacuations by helicopter.

“This is a national disgrace,” Terry Ebbert, head of New Orleans’ emergency operations, told reporters outside the Superdome. “FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control. We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims but we can’t bail out the city of New Orleans. We have got a mayor who has been pushing and asking but we’re not getting supplies.”

Christine Wormuth, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies conducting a yearlong study on the future of the National Guard and Reserves, said she thinks the administration’s early response has been better than critics understand.

“I think actually the preparedness level from a coordination perspective is pretty good,” she said. “There are a lot of operational challenges on the ground that are making it difficult to flow forces to the region. Roads are impassable. Many of the helipads in New Orleans are submerged, landing spots are compromised because of downed trees or power lines or water damage, and it’s become more compromised by the fact there seem to be these looters and snipers. It’s on a far more massive scale that most disaster relief operations.”

Wormuth said she doesn’t believe the deployment of so many National Guard troops to Iraq because of the war has created a shortage of troops to respond to the hurricane and flooding. However, she said, difficulty in clearing major roads in the path of Katrina has “probably been exacerbated to some degree by the fact that because of the operations in Iraq, Guard units have been directed to leave some portions of their equipment behind in Iraq. . . . In some cases you have units that would normally have more bulldozers, more trucks than they do, to clear those roads.”