President Bush got a close up look Monday at parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. Meanwhile, his embattled emergency management chief resigned amid strong criticism of the administration's disaster response.
President Bush made his first trip to the hurricane-ravaged heart of New Orleans, Louisiana, and got to see, touch and smell the watery muck that now fills the streets of the city.
He traveled through parts of the town on the back of an open military truck, ducking sagging branches and wires as the vehicle made its way through neighborhoods where the flood waters have largely receded.
Officials on the ground say they have drained about half the city. New Orleans, once one of the most vibrant towns in the nation, remains virtually deserted, save for rescue and recovery workers.
The city sports arena and a nearby convention hall that were used as emergency shelters are empty now except for huge mounds of trash. They housed those who did not have the means or the will to evacuate the city before the storm, including the poor, the elderly and the sick.
As he finished his damage inspection tour, President Bush was asked if the initial response to the disaster was slow because many of the victims trapped in New Orleans were low-income blacks.
"The storm didn't discriminate and neither will the recovery effort," said Mr. Bush. "When those Coast Guard choppers, many of which were first on the scene, were pulling people off roofs, they did not checking the color of a person's skin, they wanted to save lives."
The president also rejected the notion that the U.S. military does not have enough troops to help with hurricane relief because it is stretched thin in Iraq. Mr. Bush said there are enough troops to handle both missions.
"It is preposterous to claim that the engagement in Iraq meant there weren't enough troops here, pure and simple," he added.
Mr. Bush said the hurricane recovery effort is moving ahead, although he stressed there is a lot of work left to be done. When asked once again if there were steps that could have been taken to get federal help to the Gulf Coast faster, he said that is one matter that perhaps should be investigated by Congress.
"I think it is very important for Congress to take a good close look at what went on and what didn't go on and come up with a series of recommendations," explained Mr. Bush. "My attitude is we need to learn everything we possibly can, we need to make sure this country is knitted up as well as it can be in order to deal with significant problems and disasters.
Members of Congress from both political parties have been critical of the government response to Hurricane Katrina. Last week, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, was removed from his duties as head of the federal relief effort in the region and recalled to Washington. The president was traveling from Louisiana to neighboring Mississippi when word emerged that the embattled FEMA head had resigned.
Asked about the resignation during a stop in the town of Gulfport, the president tried to put the focus back on helping the disaster victims. He said he was busy inspecting relief efforts and had not talked to Mr. Brown or the secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff.
"We just came from a church that is feeding people that need help and there are people from all over the country there [as volunteer helpers]. It is unbelievable. So what I have been doing is thanking people and lifting their spirits so I can not comment about something that you may know more about than I do," noted Mr. Bush.
A short time later came word from the White House that the president had chosen a replacement for Michael Brown. R. David Paulison, a FEMA official with decades of experience in emergency preparedness, will take over as acting agency chief.