Bush vows 'huge' aid effort in 2nd Gulf Coast visit

Sun National Staff

NEW ORLEANS - As rescuers intensified their search yesterday for survivors and bodies in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast, President Bush returned to the stricken area to thank relief workers and pledge a "huge effort" to help the region recover from Hurricane Katrina and the floods left in its wake.

"This is a long-term project to help these people. And this country is going to be committed to doing what it takes to help people get back on their feet," Bush said while visiting a shelter in Baton Rouge. "We've got a lot of work to do, and that's why I'm here, to tell people we'll get it done."

The full scale of the looming recovery effort became clearer yesterday, both in New Orleans and in parishes around the city that had been devastated by the storm and subsequent flooding and isolated for most of last week. In rural Plaquemines Parish southeast of New Orleans, residents trickled in to find utter devastation, while in suburban Jefferson Parish west of the city, residents were allowed back in only to salvage belongings.

Slowly but surely, however, recovery and repair also progressed. In New Orleans, Louisiana officials reported late in the day that repairs had been completed on the 17th Street Canal levee breach, where flooding began, and that water was being pumped out of the canal and into Lake Pontchartrain, the huge Gulf of Mexico inlet north of the city.

Bush's visit to the area, his second in four days, followed a weekend of continued second-guessing and recrimination over the halting government response last week to the damage wrought by the storm, particularly in flooded New Orleans. While federal officials have sought to deflect blame onto state and local officials in the region, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco has refused to sign over National Guard control to the government and has turned to the Clinton administration's head of emergency operations to help manage relief efforts.

Strain lingered beneath the surface of Bush's visit, which also included a stop in Poplarville, Miss. Blanco, who was not informed of the timing of Bush's visit, offered only a terse introduction for the president. Bush, who choked up briefly in his remarks at the shelter, kissed Blanco's cheek but otherwise kept his distance.

The president's reception among hurricane victims was likewise ambivalent. Some people staying at the huge shelter, at the Bethany World Prayer Center, rushed to greet the president and Laura Bush, but others hung back.

"I'm not star-struck. I need answers," said Mildred Brown, who has been at the shelter since Tuesday with her husband, mother-in-law and cousin. "I'm not interested in hand-shaking. I'm not interested in photo-ops. This is going to take a lot of money."

While charges continued to fly over last week's delays in mobilization, waves of troops continued to pour into the region, one week after the storm hit. The Pentagon increased to 8,500 the number of active-duty forces bound for the region, where they will join close to 40,000 National Guardsmen called up from around the country.

Meanwhile, however, roughly a quarter of the New Orleans police force remained unaccounted for, according to Deputy Police Chief Warren Riley said. Two officers have committed suicide in recent days.

Throughout the day, police officers, National Guardsmen and 82nd Airborne soldiers stepped up their efforts to find the few thousand residents still believed to be stranded and urged them onto boats, trucks and helicopters leaving the city. Troops stopped short of forcing residents to leave, but used the strongest terms of persuasion, telling them that the city would be unlivable for weeks.

"We advise people that this city has been destroyed," said Riley, in a news briefing.

At the same time as soldiers were trying to corral stranded residents, they were also having to contend with some evacuees trying to return to the city to inspect their homes. One man driving an SUV said he had managed to sneak back to his home four times in recent days.

Those who did agree to leave their homes were taken to Louis Armstrong International Airport. There, they were evaluated by military and civilian medical teams and assigned either to be flown to hospitals or shelters around the country, from San Antonio to Atlanta and beyond.

Air Force Col. Larry Riddles, a physician helping oversee the airport processing, said the evacuations were likely going to continue for the foreseeable future - "until we see the day that New Orleans is completely evacuated." He said it was imperative that the city be emptied as soon as possible.

"You have to restore the whole destroyed infrastructure. Otherwise, it's like leaving someone to live on a desert island," he said. "Every day they are out there is another day without food or water. It's a ticking time bomb."

Among those evacuated to the airport was Christopher Wyman, 54, a blues guitarist who had held out at his home in the city's impoverished Ninth Ward until he ran out of blood pressure medication. He said that even with water outside the house climbing to 7 feet, he hadn't realized how dire the situation was in the city until a neighbor came by with a radio.

When soldiers arrived yesterday, he took up their offer and was taken to the airport with his grown daughter, her boyfriend, and a 6-year-old cousin.

At the airport, he entertained medical staff with his Stratocaster guitar, improvising a tune for his favorite nurse, Jackie, with lyrics lamenting that she was married. Twenty doctors and nurses looking on applauded.

Wyman said he wasn't sure where his family would be flown.

"Wherever the airplane drops us off at," he said. "We just had to get out of where we were. Wherever they bring us, it will be better than here."

In St. Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans, members of the 29th Military Police Company in the Maryland National Guard, which had been waiting in the area several days for orders, headed into the hard-hit community to search for bodies and survivors.

Company commander Capt. Marc Blum, an Owings Mills native, and eight platoon sergeants strapped on body armor for an advance mission into the parish. Their goal: to see up close how the 60-man company could get in by boats and Humvees, and to return by nightfall with a detailed plan of action. The MPs deployed late yesterday and were to remain for at least five days.

Capt. Andreas Simmons, 34, a Guardsman from Corpus Christi, Texas, who was stationed with the Marylanders, was grim about what his new friends faced. "Body recovery - that changes you," he said. "I hope they don't run across children. That's just too hard."

As soldiers searched in hopes of finding the living, several dozen morticians scoured New Orleans for the dead. Federal officials refrained from making any casualty estimates, with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff saying only, "it's going to be an unhappy number." But New Orleans' mayor warned that 10,000 people may have died in the city.

The mayor, Ray Nagin, was otherwise more upbeat, though, than he'd been last week, when he excoriated federal officials for their slow response.

"We're making great progress now, the momentum has picked up. I'm starting to see some critical tasks being completed," he said on NBC's Today show.

The floodwaters, which had reached the level of Lake Pontchartrain late last week, continued to flow slowly out of the city, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, which spent much of the day trying to get the city's pump system up and running. The Corps had also made breaches in levees in St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish to assist in lowering water there.

There were also signs that cleanup was underway in the drier parts of New Orleans, as skip-loaders hired by the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived to start gathering debris. Benjamin Blackwell, 29, said he was being paid $150 a day to clear debris at Coliseum Theater.

"If it wasn't so destroyed, this would be a very pretty town, architecture-wise," he observed.

In Jefferson Parish, where officials have reported about 100 bodies in the morgue, a stream of residents returned to look at their damaged homes. The parish president, who broke down on during a television interview Sunday while speaking about the death of a colleague's mother in the floods, said residents could come back in as long as they observed a dusk-to-dawn curfew, had food and a full tank of gas, and left by tomorrow.

Among those returning was Diane Dempsey, a 59-year-old retired Army lieutenant colonel who stopped at the water's edge less than a mile from the house where she grew up and where her aunt lives.

Most of the single-story bungalow homes in her neighborhood had water nearly to the rooflines. Homes in exclusive Old Metairie had little structural damage but some of the worst flooding. Along rows of palatial, six-bedroom homes, a few windows were broken and the live oaks survived but the water rippled up to front-door knobs.

"I'm going to pay someone to get me back there, anything I have to do," Dempsey told the Associated Press, sobbing. "A lot of these people built these houses anticipating some flood water but nobody imagined this."

On Mississippi's Gulf Coast, where many refugees had no homes left to return to, the strain of shelter living was starting to set in. "Sleep for all of us is hard to get," said Ryan Taylor, 14, who has been living with his family at an elementary school in Gulfport. "No matter how much we get, we feel tired in the morning. We're always looking for food and ice and water because you never know when you'll get more."

Thousands of others evacuated from their homes were trying to rebuild their lives hundreds of miles away.

In Houston, home to nearly 25,000 refugees - by far the largest assemblage outside Louisiana - a virtual city was taking shape, with a name all its own. "Reliant City," named after some of the arenas it includes, now holds 24,900 people divided among the Astrodome, two other sports arenas and a convention center.

By the end of this week, the complex is to include a banking center, a "town square" park, playground, transit center, sports facilities and a laundry. Refugees in residence are being given pink wristbands to identify them, and to distinguish them from a few interlopers who have been found to misrepresenting themselves as refugees.

There are expected to be about 4,000 school-age children registered in Houston schools, with buses delivering students to 20 schools starting Monday.

A medical clinic set up in a 100,000-square-foot warehouse nearby is seeing an average of 1,400 patients per day, and has given tetanus vaccination shots to more than 7,500 people. A wave of diarrhea and vomiting cases was reported yesterday, and patients were cordoned off to prevent the bugs from spreading.

Also in Houston, former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton announced the creation of the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, money that they will raise and then divide among the governors of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Private donations, including several large corporate gifts, have already topped $200 million.

Separately, in an interview with CNN, Clinton joined the chorus of criticism being heaped on FEMA, saying that the agency's slow response suggested that it may have been a mistake to place it under the new Department of Homeland Security. But, he added, this wasn't the time for that debate.

"Now, we ought to be looking at the human problem," he said. "Yes, we failed once - let's not fail a second time."

Others were less patient with their criticism. The Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans, which was driven from its offices by the flood, published an open letter to Bush calling for the firing of every official at FEMA. "We're angry, Mr. President, and we'll be angry long after our beloved city and surrounding parishes have been pumped dry," the editorial said. "Our people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That's to the government's shame."

"Every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be fired, Director Michael Brown especially," the letter continued. "No expense should have been spared. No excuses should have been voiced."

In a news conference yesterday, Brown, who was appointed by Bush in 2003 after working for the International Arabian Horse Association, defended his qualifications, noting that he had overseen responses to dozens of emergencies prior to Katrina. "I've been through a few disasters in my life," he said.

Congress comes back into session today, and lawmakers are expected to focus most of their attention over the next few weeks on Katrina's fallout.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said yesterday that the Senate would pass a resolution expressing sympathy for storm victims this afternoon, along with legislation authorizing federal courts in the affected areas to set up shop elsewhere. Congress passed $10.5 billion in emergency money for the relief effort late last week, and Frist said he would meet with members of the Senate Appropriations Committee midweek to talk about how much more would be needed.

Lawmakers also plan to look at how the hurricane is affecting gasoline prices, which have shot up over the past week. And there will be an examination of what could have been done differently by the federal government to respond to the storm.

Sun staff writers Matthew Hay Brown in Houston; Abigail Tucker in Gulfport; Gwyneth K. Shaw in Washington, and the Associated Press contributed to this report. MacGillis reported from Baltimore, and Birch and Pitts from New Orleans.

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