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Bush Promises Help For California Fire Victims

Thousands of Californians are returning to neighborhoods they abandoned in the face of wildfires that continue to ravage the southern part of the state. VOA White House correspondent Scott Stearns reports, President Bush says the federal government will help people rebuild homes and businesses.

President Bush visited some of the fire damage near San Diego this past Thursday. In his weekly radio address Saturday, he says he made a pledge to the people of California on behalf of all Americans: that the government would help put out the fires and rebuild their lives.

As part of that effort, Mr. Bush has made federal funding available to those in counties affected by wildfires that burned nearly 200,000 hectares.

"This Federal assistance includes grants for temporary housing and home repair, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, loans for small business owners, and funding to help clean up debris," he said.

The federal government's response to this natural disaster has been under scrutiny because of its generally poor response to Hurricane Katrina two years ago.

Following that killer storm, Bush administration officials criticized the governor of Louisiana and mayor of New Orleans for not taking action sooner to get more people out of the way of rising flood waters.

President Bush has made no direct comparison between the natural disasters but made clear his admiration for officials in California.

"State and local authorities in California were well prepared for this crisis, and they responded quickly and effectively. Officials warned those in danger, moved residents out of the path of the flames, and set up dozens of shelters for thousands of people," he said.

Damage estimates for the fire top $1 billion. In the Democratic radio address, party chairman Howard Dean thanked firefighters for their extraordinary work.

"You serve as a reminder that when we work together, Americans can accomplish anything. We need more of that spirit in Washington, D.C. today," he said.

Dean again criticized President Bush for vetoing the expansion of a program that provides health insurance for children whose families can not afford it.

The president says he supports the program but does not want it expanded as much as opposition Democrats because he says that would move more people from private health insurance onto government-run programs.

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