Bush Surveys Hurricane Damage

President Bush ends his vacation early to coordinate the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina. David Greene reports on Mr. Bush's first-hand look at the devastation from the air.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Bush returned to Washington yesterday. He had been at his Texas ranch and was supposed to remain there throughout the weekend. As the scale of destruction from Hurricane Katrina became clear, the White House announced abruptly that the president was ending his vacation early so he could coordinate the federal government's response from the White House. On his way home he got a firsthand look at the devastation from the air. NPR's David Greene was traveling with Mr. Bush.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

If the president was trying to send a message yesterday it was that he and his administration are engaged, trying to help the Gulf Coast get back on its feet. Mr. Bush was wrapping up a monthlong vacation in Texas. He instructed the pilot of Air Force One to take a detour on the flight back so he could get a look at Katrina's destruction. The plane slowed down and dipped to as low as 1,700 feet as it passed over New Orleans and the Mississippi towns of Gulfport and Biloxi. Mr. Bush sat at a window on the left side for about 35 minutes. His aides and the reporters traveling with him were getting the same view he was.

(Soundbite of plane engines)

Unidentified Man #1: Look at the trees!

Unidentified Man #2: ...snapped them like twigs.

Unidentified Man #3: ...snapped them all.

GREENE: Mr. Bush's plane flew right past the Louisiana Superdome, past submerged shopping centers and an amusement park where the roller-coasters now snake in and out of dark water.

After arriving at the White House, Mr. Bush spoke about what he saw.

(Soundbite of presidential address)

Pres. BUSH: The vast majority of New Orleans, Louisiana, is under water. Tens of thousands of homes and businesses are beyond repair. A lot of the Mississippi Gulf Coast has been completely destroyed. Mobile is flooded. We are dealing with one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history.

GREENE: He stood with more than a dozen members of his Cabinet in the Rose Garden at an event briefly held up by the threat of rain. Mr. Bush said federal help is already on the way to the Gulf Coast in the form of water, ice, blankets, cots and other essentials. But he said the road to recovery will be difficult and could take years.

(Soundbite of presidential address)

Pres. BUSH: Right now, the days seem awfully dark for those affected. I understand that. But I'm confident that, with time, you get your life back in order, new communities will flourish, the great city of New Orleans will be back on its feet and America will be a stronger place for it.

GREENE: The president is expected to see the region from the ground sometime later this week. David Greene, NPR News, Washington.

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