President Bush made a rare admission of error Tuesday as he accepted responsibility for the weak federal response to Hurricane Katrina and vowed to get to the bottom of what went wrong.
Bush, who belatedly cut short his summer vacation and returned to Washington after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast two weeks ago, planned to address the nation Thursday evening from New Orleans during his fourth visit to the stricken region.
“Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent that the federal government didn’t do its job right, I take responsibility,” Bush said at a White House news conference with visiting Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
Bush spoke in response to a reporter asking whether Americans, in light of the federal government’s sluggish response to Katrina, should be concerned about whether Washington is prepared to handle another disaster or a terrorist attack.
“I want to know what went right and what went wrong,” Bush said. “I want to know how to better cooperate with state and local government _ to be able to answer that very question that you asked: Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack or another severe storm? And that’s a very important question. And it’s in our national interest that we find out what went on . . . so that we can better respond.”
Even as he acknowledged problems, Bush praised Coast Guard and other rescue teams in the devastated area.
“I also want people in America to understand how hard people are working to save lives down there . . . not only in New Orleans, but surrounding parishes and along the Gulf Coast,” he said.
While still considerably lower than earlier estimates by local officials, Katrina’s death toll, mainly from massive flooding after the hurricane passed, reached 423 in Louisiana on Tuesday, and 236 in Mississippi and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast.
During a tour of hurricane-stricken Mississippi, U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said Katrina has caused the worst transportation disaster in American history, hamstringing movement of people and cargo in ports, on highways and along rivers.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who has joined scores of other politicians from the region in criticizing the federal response, expressed appreciation for Bush’s concession.
“The president’s comments today will do more to move our country forward with this tragedy than anything that has been said by any leader in the past two weeks,” she said. “Accountability at every level is critical, and leadership begins at the top.”
A Senate committee, headed by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, was scheduled to hold Wednesday the first of what will likely be many congressional hearings on the Katrina response.
R. David Paulison, newly named head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Bush told him during a phone conversation Monday evening that he “would have all the support of the federal government” to help Katrina survivors rebuild their lives and to aid in the ravaged area’s reconstruction.
“I can’t deal with what happened in the last two weeks, but I can tell you, from this point forward, we are going to be focused on the victims of this hurricane,” Paulison told reporters. “We’ve had a hurricane of unimaginable proportions, and we’re going to deal with it. We’re going to get the people out of shelters, and we’re going to move on and get them the help that they need.”
Paulison has 30 years’ experience in disaster rescue operations. Among his previous jobs, he headed the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department and ran Dade County’s emergency-management office, helping lead Florida’s response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The state named him fire chief of the year in 1993.
But Louisiana political leaders in Washington said they didn’t trust FEMA, even under new leadership, to direct the immense reconstruction effort in their state and adjoining areas.
Landrieu joined Sen. David Vitter, a freshman Republican from Louisiana, on the Senate floor Tuesday in announcing plans by the state’s congressional delegation to introduce a bill later this week to set up an independent reconstruction commission.
“We need a Katrina reconstruction commission headed by a no-nonsense, nonpolitical, businessman manager so that we all have something lasting to show for this spending,” Vitter said.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, proposed last week that Congress create the Gulf Coast Redevelopment Authority. It would be modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority, which President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress established during the Depression to revitalize the seven-state Tennessee Valley region.