US President George W. Bush on Wednesday showcased his role in helping California fight devastating wildfires, eager to prove he learned the grim lessons of the botched response to Hurricane Katrina.
Bush, his presidency forever marked by Washington’s sluggish reaction to the killer 2005 storm, freed up more government aid for the victims of the fires and said he hoped they understood he was doing his utmost to help.
“Most importantly, I want the people in Southern California to know that Americans all across this land care deeply about them,” he told reporters invited to see part of a Cabinet meeting that focused on the disaster.
“We’re concerned about their safety. We’re concerned about their property. And we offer our prayers and hopes that all will turn out fine in the end. In the meantime, they can rest assured that the federal government will do everything we can to help put out these fires,” said Bush.
The president, who on Tuesday authorized a wave of urgent aid, signed a new order paving the way for more help, including grants for reconstruction and assistance aimed at helping those whose homes or businesses were not insured.
Prodded on whether Bush hoped to avoid a repeat of the Katrina debacle, spokeswoman Dana Perino cited a report on the poor response to the storm and declared: “We have learned those lessons and those lessons are being applied.”
“Yes, Katrina was not handled well. The president accepted responsibility for that, and then he took action to fix it, and we have,” she said in a testy exchange with reporters.
Bush, who was to travel to California on Thursday, said he and his Cabinet received a briefing from the devastated areas by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) chief David Paulison.
“I believe the effort is well coordinated. I know we’re getting the manpower and assets on the ground that had been requested by the state and local authorities,” said the president.
Bush said he had spoken with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and “assured him that if he needs anything and we’re able to provide it, we’ll do so.”
The president also said that strong winds were hampering efforts to battle the blazes, telling reporters “I wish we could control the wind” but adding that he had been told it “may be dying down soon.”
California officials said that the blazes have destroyed more than one billion dollars in property in the worst affected areas, not including losses for business and commerce.
San Diego has emerged as the ground zero of the California wildfire crisis, which has seen an estimated 500,000 people evacuated and more than 1,300 homes destroyed.
At least one person was killed and 45 injured, including 21 firefighters, in at least 16 separate fires that have erupted since Sunday. Powerful seasonal winds spread smoldering embers across the region, igniting new fires.
Blazes have so far scorched at least 166,000 hectares (412,000 acres) of tinder-dry forest and brush, officials said.