Bush Sees Katrina Damage on Way to Capital Returning to Washington, President Bush witnesses the devastation from Hurricane Katrina as he flies over the Gulf Coast in Air Force One. The president ended his August vacation two days early to take charge of the federal response to Katrina. Don Gonyea reports on the what's at stake politically for Bush in addressing this disaster.
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Bush Sees Katrina Damage on Way to Capital

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Bush Sees Katrina Damage on Way to Capital

Bush Sees Katrina Damage on Way to Capital

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

President Bush spoke to new cameras tonight from the White House, calling for prayer and patience in a recovery that he said will take years. He returned to Washington today to oversee the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, ending his Texas vacation two days early. On the way, Air Force One flew over New Orleans and the president will visit the region later this week.

In times of natural disaster, Mr. Bush and his aides are also aware of the political stakes. NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea has this report.

DON GONYEA reporting:

Back in Washington earlier than expected, the president held a meeting with Cabinet officials on hurricane relief, then he stood in the Rose Garden to say that the federal government, the entire country, will do all in its power to help.

President GEORGE W. 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'll flourish, the great city of New Orleans will be back on its feet and America will be a stronger place for it.

GONYEA: If the president wants a case study in how important it is to respond effectively when disaster hits, he need only look to his own family. Thirteen years ago, when Mr. Bush's father was president, Hurricane Andrew tore through Florida, and the first President Bush came under intense criticism from Floridians who said help was too slow in coming. The first President Bush was thrown on the defensive.

(Soundbite of 1992 broadcast)

President GEORGE H.W. BUSH: I think much more important than when something took place or didn't take place is the feeling we must convey of total cooperation. And I am satisfied that we responded properly.

GONYEA: All of this was just months before the 1992 presidential election, which George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton. Analysts say his response to the hurricane hurt him politically.

This week, after Katrina blasted ashore, the current President Bush decided to fly back from his ranch to DC, taking Air Force One down as low as 1,700 feet so he could survey damage. Political scientist Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida-Tampa says it's a fact of life that presidents are judged by how they respond at such times.

Ms. SUSAN MacMANUS (University of South Florida-Tampa): When you're the president, you are in charge of the entire governmental bureaucracy, and you'd better make sure that all pieces of the puzzle are working well. And if any of them are not, you also are going to be the one that takes the blame.

GONYEA: There has already been some frustration voiced regarding the federal response to Katrina. On CNN this morning, the former mayor of New Orleans, Sidney Barthelemy, said what's been done so far is not enough.

(Soundbite of CNN broadcast)

Former Mayor SIDNEY BARTHELEMY (New Orleans): The president of the United States is the only person who has the resources to coordinate, to bring in the troops, to make this city a safe place and solve the problems, particularly the breach in the levee. They're losing hope.

GONYEA: The president's past budgets will also face renewed scrutiny. Over the past couple of years, Louisiana newspapers have reported extensively on cuts made to federal flood-control projects that remained unfinished in New Orleans.

The president has already taken one step he's been reluctant to take in the past, tapping the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve to offset the shutdown of oil refineries and other facilities in the Gulf of Mexico. That's designed to help keep high fuel prices from rising even more. Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.

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