Bush Returns to Survey Damage on Gulf Coast

President Bush on Monday returns to devastated regions of the Gulf Coast to meet with aid workers and review relief efforts. Mr. Bush has been criticized for responding too slowly with hurricane relief efforts, but he has praised the director of FEMA for his efforts so far.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Bush travels today to Louisiana and Mississippi to see the effects of Hurricane Katrina and to meet with relief workers. His visit comes amid ongoing criticism of the administration's handling of the crisis. NPR's Don Gonyea joins us now.

Good morning.

DON GONYEA reporting:

Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Tell us what's on the president's agenda today and actually how this trip is different from last Friday's tour.

GONYEA: In a lot of ways, it'll be similar, though he won't be going to New Orleans. He'll be looking to highlight an improving situation on the ground, even as he can be expected to again talk about how this was such a cataclysmic event for the region. He also sees this, obviously, as a way to provide comfort to those displaced and who've lost so much, and it's a way to see firsthand what's going on on the ground right now. For the president, too, he also wants to demonstrate that he's on top of the situation, that he's managing the crisis. And that's also why we saw Secretary of State Rice and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld in the region over the weekend. It's a big, visible demonstration of concern that does also get to how important all of this is to Mr. Bush politically. At a time when his public support is falling because of the war in Iraq mostly, he'd really like to see the country rallying around the president, as they generally do in a crisis. Early polls show that people--while they don't blame the president, they're not really rallying around him either.

MONTAGNE: Don, just quickly, why doesn't the president go to New Orleans? You would think that's just where he'd go.

GONYEA: Well, this trip, Baton Rouge and Poplarville, Mississippi, were the places that were chosen. It seems as though he's trying to hit different places within the region. He was in New Orleans last Friday.

MONTAGNE: The administration has faced, again, persistent criticism about its response. In particular, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, Mike Brown, has been singled out. And that's a Bush appointee.

GONYEA: Yes. People note that Mike Brown, for example, didn't know of the thousands of people stranded at the New Orleans Convention Center without water until he heard about it in media reports days into the crisis. He's been attacked for statements he's made as the disaster plays out, as though he's trying to just kind of put a positive spin on things. His own background has come under very close scrutiny. He's a lawyer, a former law professor. He took the top FEMA job in 2003 after serving as deputy to an old friend of his, Joe Allbaugh, who was Mr. Bush's first FEMA director and who took that job after serving as President Bush's campaign manager back in 2000. Allbaugh was one of Mr. Bush's closest confidants, and he was Mike Brown's path to the top. Much has been made about Mr. Brown's job prior to FEMA. He was, for roughly a decade, commissioner of judges for an organization called the International Arabian Horse Association--not the kind of job seen at all related to the kind of work you have to do at FEMA. There have been calls for his firing, but last week in Alabama, the president praised him, saying, quote, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

MONTAGNE: Well, besides dealing with the hurricane aftermath this week, the president also has a vacancy to fill on the Supreme Court. Chief Justice William Rehnquist died over the weekend. What do we know about that, just briefly?

GONYEA: Not a lot at this point. Obviously, they knew this day was coming. They didn't expect it this week. They have a list of names, a list that's been in existence since the president first took office. We assume he's had somebody in mind for this very job, but right now, we don't know how quickly they're going to proceed.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much, NPR's Don Gonyea.

This is NPR News.

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