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Sunday, September 4, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sluggish response raises questions

Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON — Near the end of a stunning week consumed with 24-hour streaming images of New Orleans under water and homeless victims of Hurricane Katrina pleading for rescue, President Bush acknowledged what most Americans already had concluded about relief efforts: "The results are not acceptable."

The failure of federal, state and local authorities to prepare adequately for a Category 4 hurricane in a fabled city sitting below sea level — and the tortoiselike response of federal forces that arrived with convoys of food and water at week's end — raise questions that the Bush administration will be answering for weeks, maybe months.

Congressional leaders returning from summer vacation — Republican leaders — already have called for hearings when the crisis subsides, a tacit acknowledgement of the potential political fallout if an angry public assigns blame for the debacle on the party in power in Washington, D.C.

As midterm congressional elections approach next year, Republican leaders are sensitive to any spinoff from the White House's problems. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., rushed Congress to approve the president's $10.5 billion aid bill for Katrina victims.

For a president who honed his credentials as a manager of unimaginable crisis in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the sluggish response to Katrina by the Department of Homeland Security that was born of those terrorist assaults raises new questions about the nation's true preparedness for another catastrophe caused by forces less predictable than hurricanes, namely terrorists.

For Bush, whose popularity already had plummeted to the low point of his two terms before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast — 40 percent job approval in the latest Gallup Poll — the catastrophic act of nature also offered something that 9/11 had presented: a chance to take charge.

Instead, days of worsening chaos inside New Orleans, bracketed by shocking images of devastation along the Mississippi and Alabama coasts, gave the nation an image that seemingly no one was in charge.

Now, as truckloads of food and water roll into New Orleans and busloads of storm victims roll out, Bush stands a chance of turning public opinion his way.

But if he does not, it would send a decidedly negative signal for the chances of other legislative accomplishments during his final term and perhaps could affect already shaky support for the Iraq war.

For Bush, this means holding his administration to task for breakdowns in chains of command.

"People are going to want him to get out in front of the parade here and ask the hard questions, and if there were failings on the part of his administration to acknowledge them and address them," said David Axelrod, a Democratic political consultant.

Yet not everyone is willing to concede failure in a situation that defied immediate solutions.

"Overall, I think our government did about as good a job as it could possibly do under the conditions," said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill. "The administration admitted that it could have done more, and the country has responded in a way that really distinguishes the American people."

So far, however, the reviews on how government responded are more sharply negative.

The failings of the federal response to this disaster point directly to a vast new bureaucracy that Bush created in the aftermath of 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), an agency long responsible for federal action after natural disasters, has been absorbed into Homeland Security. And FEMA's traditional role of emergency preparedness has been shifted to a new office within Homeland Security that has no director.

The difference between FEMA's fumbled handling of Hurricane Katrina, after a successful response to four hurricanes in Florida last year, has led some critics to question the overall capacity of Homeland Security to deal with catastrophe.

"I am surprised that FEMA ... has performed as slowly and apparently as ineptly as it has in Louisiana," said former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla.

"I think it's not only at the basic level that the buck does stop with the president," Graham said. "But also, he's now been in office five years, and he was the one who urged the adoption of the new department and the incorporation of FEMA into that department and has been overseeing the budgeting of all these homeland-security activities. ... He has a very direct responsibility."

Every good political cleansing starts with a confession. And Bush was ready with that before leaving Washington, D.C., on Friday for an aerial and ground-level tour of the Gulf Coast destruction with his comment that relief efforts to date were "unacceptable."

On the ground, the image Bush presented — sleeves of his blue plaid shirt rolled up, the back of his shirt drenched in sweat as he hugged storm victims — represented an improvement over a detached, lonely image of him as he peered from the window of Air Force One while making a low-flying inspection of the storm-stricken Gulf Coast, returning two days early from a five-week working vacation at his Texas ranch.

Yet for Bush's critics, the president's improvisation after a personal review of storm-relief plans in a hangar in Biloxi, Miss., added yet more fuel to criticism that Democrats in Louisiana in particular are throwing at the president.

"The good news is — and it's hard for some to see it now — that out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast, like it was before," said Bush, then invoking the name of a storm-stricken senator. "Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott's house — he's lost his entire house — there's going to be a fantastic house. And I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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