President George W. Bush, under fierce criticism for his government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina, sought to reassure storm survivors on Monday as a veteran lawmaker complained that bureaucratic red tape was hampering relief efforts in Mississippi.
Bush made his second visit to Louisiana and Mississippi, where the storm has caused one of the biggest humanitarian crises in U.S. history. On his first tour on Friday, five days after the huge scale of the disaster became apparent, the president acknowledged the initial relief effort had been “unacceptable.”
Speaking to emergency officials gathered in a stifling auditorium at Pearl River Community College in Poplarville, Bush pledged that “we’re here for the long term.”
“I understand. I understand the damage. I understand the devastation, I understand the destruction, I understand how long it’s going to take. And we’re with you. That’s what I want you to know,” Bush said.
In a sign of the political pressure facing Bush, Mississippi Republican Sen. Trent Lott, a former Senate majority leader, said he has been battling the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its Mississippi counterpart for help for his state and urged Bush to cut red tape.
After a one-on-one meeting with Bush in Poplarville, Lott said: “I am demanding help for the people of Mississippi to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.”
The recovery effort will require “an unprecedented public and private effort that can’t be hampered by a process geared toward much lesser disasters,” Lott said in a statement issued after Bush left Mississippi.
In Washington, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada backed calls to create a commission, like the one that examined the September 11, 2001, attacks, to study how the hurricane response went wrong.
“Serious mistakes were made,” Reid said.
Bush has been under fire from Democrats and Republicans alike for a sluggish federal response to a flood that has made hundreds of thousands homeless and is feared to have killed thousands along the northern Gulf of Mexico coast.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said congressional leaders were to meet with Bush at the White House on Tuesday.
Bush walked through a neighborhood in Poplarville, shaking hands and talking to people outside their homes. Many trees were down and residents hoped they could get their electricity back.
Earlier, Bush pledged after meeting disaster relief officials at an emergency operations center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that adjustments would be made to the relief effort as needed.
“If it’s not right, we’re going to fix it, and if it is right, we’re going to keep doing it. And this is just the beginning of a huge effort,” Bush said.
At Baton Rouge’s Bethany World Prayer Center, where dozens of evacuees were being cared for, Bush was with Dallas religious broadcaster T.D. Jakes and Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden, who are both black. The government will “do what it takes” to get people back on their feet, he said.
Some black leaders have accused relief officials of not taking the crisis seriously enough because many of its victims are poor and black.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean called the Bush trip “another callous political move” aimed at shifting blame for the political crisis from himself.
While calling some of the relief efforts unacceptable, Bush has not publicly singled out anyone for criticism although there has been some finger-pointing between state, federal and local authorities. “All levels of government are doing the best they can,” Bush said.
The outcry over the slow federal response has triggered a major political crisis for Bush, already suffering from the lowest public approval ratings of his presidency, largely because of the war in Iraq.
“He’s doing good now, I guess, since he came down to see it for himself,” said one evacuee at the prayer center, Milton Beverly of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana.