Since two days after Hurricane Katrina lashed much of the Gulf Coast into oblivion, President Bush hasn’t gone a day without a public event devoted to the storm. Monday was no different, as he planned a return to the storm-ravaged region for a third look at Katrina’s effect with visits to Baton Rouge, La., and Poplarville, Miss.
But none of it _ including a stream of Cabinet secretaries and other high-level federal officials to the area and on the airwaves Sunday _ has quieted the complaints that Washington moved too slowly in the storm’s aftermath.
Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, just south of New Orleans, broke down on NBC’s “Meet the Press” when he talked about people who waited for help.
“They were told like me, every single day, the cavalry’s coming, on a federal level. The cavalry’s coming, the cavalry’s coming, the cavalry’s coming. I have just begun to hear the hoofs of the cavalry …,” Broussard said.
“They’ve had press conferences _ I’m sick of the press conferences. For God’s sakes, shut up and send us somebody.”
Bush’s itinerary Monday, which replaces a planned Labor Day speech in Maryland, was taking him a little farther afield of the center of the storm’s fury than his trip on Friday. Then, Bush walked a neighborhood in decimated Biloxi on Mississippi’s coast and stopped at the airport and a breached levee in New Orleans. The president also saw hurricane damage last Wednesday during a flyover of the coast from aboard Air Force One.
By contrast, Baton Rouge, about 80 miles northwest of New Orleans, largely escaped damage. Its population, however, has swelled dramatically with refugees and is experiencing clogged roads and supply shortages.
Poplarville, where Bush was to meet with state and local officials at the Pearl River Community College, is about 45 miles inland. But the area was in the path of Katrina’s eye and devastation in the town and surrounding rural areas was enormous.
“The world saw this tidal wave of disaster descend upon the Gulf Coast,” Bush said Sunday during a visit to the Red Cross disaster operations center in Washington, where he urged Americans to donate money, time and blood to the relief effort. “Now they’re going to see a tidal wave of compassion.”
The president has come under fire for waiting until two days after Katrina hit _ and a day after levee breaks drowned New Orleans and turned it into a place of lawless misery _ to return to Washington from his August break in Texas to oversee the federal response.
It ended up taking several days for food and water to reach the tens of thousands of desperate New Orleans residents who took shelter in the increasingly squalid and deadly Superdome and city convention center. Outlying areas, though receiving less nationwide attention, suffered some of the same problems.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff took up the administration’s cause Sunday, dispatched to appear on all five network interview shows after damage-control efforts by the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, met with little success last week.
Chertoff echoed the White House line _ saying the time to place blame will come later. But he also hinted at an emerging line of defense, saying federal officials had problems getting information from local officials and were surprised they hadn’t been told by Thursday of the violence and horrible conditions at the New Orleans convention center.
“I got to tell you that hearing reports on TV and then calling the field and hearing something different is not what the secretary of Homeland Security wants to see happening,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., lashed back, saying she won’t tolerate federal officials’ denigrating local efforts to deal with the catastrophe.
“If one person criticizes them or says one more thing, including the president of the United States, he will hear from me,” she said on the ABC’s “This Week.” “One more word about it after this show airs and I might likely have to punch him. Literally.”
Sniping aside, officials reported some progress, and some new worries.
The leader of the air component of the military’s task force said rescuers have plucked tens of thousands of terrified residents in readily visible locations, but is just starting on a door-to-door search that will take weeks, if not months.
“Now comes the grunt work of the search and rescue,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Marvin S. “Scott” Mayes.
Chertoff warned that other significant challenges remain _ including how to care for the people being relocated.
“We are still in the middle of the emergency,” he said on CNN’s “Late Edition.”
Hundreds of federal health officers and nearly 100 tons of medical supplies were on their way to the Gulf Coast to try to head off disease outbreaks, feared because of the hot weather, mosquitos and standing water holding human waste, corpses and other contaminants.
Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta predicted it will cost at least $1.5 billion to rebuild destroyed highways _ not counting bridges and local roads
Federal officials, meanwhile, confirmed the local officials’ worst fears and agreed the death toll will skyrocket. “I think it’s evident it’s in the thousands,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt.