Dubya Off for Another Photo Op in The Big Easy

President George W. Bush, under fire for the government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina, heads for waterlogged New Orleans today for his third photo op in two weeks.

During his visit, the president will survey the damage to the city by air and in military vehicles on the ground before making two stops in Gulfport, Mississippi, which was also pummeled when Katrina hit on August 29.

In recent days, Bush has dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney and Cabinet officials to survey the damage and to counter continued criticism that the administration’s response to the storm has been slow and inadequate.

Polls show Americans were deeply unhappy with federal, state and local officials, who they said moved too slowly to help.

Bush personally took a big hit. A Newsweek survey found just 38 percent of those polled approved of Bush’s performance, the lowest rating of his presidency.

On Sunday, the president visited a base camp for hundreds of firefighters from around the country, including New Yorkers marking the fourth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. They had come to help with rescue and recovery efforts in this latest disaster.

“Television doesn’t do it justice, I mean the magnitude of the challenge is almost indescribable,” said White House chief of staff Andrew Card, who accompanied Bush.

Bush spent the night aboard the warship USS Iwo Jima, docked near New Orleans’ once-lively downtown. Largely evacuated of its residents, the struggling city is now occupied by soldiers, police and emergency personnel.

Parts of the city remain swamped by contaminated water, officials continue the search for dead bodies and most of city’s 450,000 residents are scattered across the United States in shelters and the homes of friends and family.

About one million people from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were displaced by the storm and many families have been separated.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said 1,600 children were listed as missing by their parents, or were seeking their families.

Within New Orleans, boat teams navigated the flooded streets of the worst-hit neighborhoods, using axes to break into the attics of homes. Helicopters spun overhead all day, but there were no signs of rooftop rescues in the continued hunt for hurricane victims.

The death toll has climbed past 400, making it one of the deadliest hurricanes in the United States in a century. But the figure was far lower than initial estimates that thousands had died in New Orleans alone.

“We didn’t lose as many lives as had been predicted, although we’re still in the process of finding those we lost,” Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said.

Louisiana raised its official death count to 197 on Sunday. Mississippi, the other hardest hit state, had 211 confirmed killed. There were also fatalities, though much lower numbers, in Alabama and Florida.

The storm could also be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. Estimates range from $100 billion to $200 billion. Congress has approved $62.3 billion so far for hurricane relief.

In devastated coastal Mississippi, where some towns were flattened, residents trying to pick up the pieces had another battle on their hands.

“The pitiful thing here is that insurance companies are trying to stiff us,” said Eve Jaspers, a Mississippi deputy sheriff, who did not buy flood coverage because her house was built on high land.

“They’re telling me this was flood damage,” she said. “The walls fell out. The front door is in the garage, God knows where the garage door is. It was clearly a small tornado.”

Amid the devastation, however, there were signs of hope.

Thousands of residents who had refused to leave New Orleans, despite an evacuation order and the threat of forced removal, were being allowed to stay.

“We’re not forcing anyone out of their homes,” New Orleans Police Capt. Marlon Defillo said. “The people are in violation of a mandatory evacuation order. (But) we will not physically force people out of their homes.”

He declined to say if it marked a permanent change in policy, but it appeared to have spared the already humbled city the spectacle of residents being pulled from their dwellings in restraints or at gunpoint, though police had said only minimal force would have been used had it come to that.

Business owners were being allowed back into downtown New Orleans to visit their property, though they were told they could not stray beyond the central business district.

Health officials on Monday were to begin spraying for flies and mosquitoes to minimize the risk of disease being carried by the insects, a step toward making the city habitable again.

Northrop Grumman Corp. , the largest manufacturing employer in Louisiana and Mississippi, put out a call for thousands of ship builders to return to work if possible on Monday at New Orleans and Pascagoula, Mississippi, shipyards.

Gary LaFarge, head of the Port of New Orleans, said the damage suffered by the facility was not as bad as feared, and it could be back to normal in four to five months. Twenty percent of U.S. imports and exports pass through the port, a source of jobs for 100,000 in the region.

There had been fears the water that drowned New Orleans was full of toxic chemicals and waste. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported tests showed waters did not contain concentrations of chemicals high enough to pose a threat to human health. But it said fecal bacteria was a danger and so much salt water flowed into the city that lawns may not recover for some time.