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

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Poll: Nation split on response

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — An overwhelming majority of Americans believe oil and gas companies are gouging consumers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina but offer mixed reviews of President Bush and the government's initial response to the deadly storm, a Washington Post-ABC News poll shows.

The survey, conducted Friday night, found that 72 percent of respondents say oil companies and gas suppliers have taken advantage of the emergency by increasing gasoline prices, which spiked virtually overnight to $3 a gallon or more in many areas. Eight in every 10 fault the government's response to surging gas prices.

"We're pushing $3" a gallon, said John Snell, 63, a retired boiler operator who lives in Fargo, N.D. "It's never been legitimate — it's just an excuse to raise prices. ... It's gouging, that's all it is."

The survey also found that Americans were sharply divided over the performance of Bush and local, state and federal governments in the aftermath of Monday's storm. Slightly less than half — 46 percent — approve of the way Bush has handled relief efforts while 47 percent disapprove, a result that might offer some cheer to some beleaguered White House staffers who feared a stronger negative reaction.

The early response received equally mixed reviews, with 48 percent rating the federal effort as excellent or good and 51 percent saying it was not so good or poor — views deeply colored by party affiliation. According to the poll, 68 percent of Democrats rated the government's performance as "not so good" or "poor," while 66 percent of Republicans judged it to be "excellent" or "good." This finding shows this national emergency has not united Americans in the same way as did the Sept. 11 attacks.

Slightly more than four in every 10 say the government response revealed serious problems in federal emergency preparedness overall. A majority (54 percent) disagreed.

A total of 501 randomly selected adults were interviewed after Bush visited the Gulf Coast region and as National Guard troops, supplies and relief workers began moving into New Orleans. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Looking back at the devastation, two-thirds of respondents said the federal government should have been better prepared to deal with a storm of this size. A larger share — three in every four — was critical of state and local governments.

While 46 percent said the deployment of troops and equipment to Iraq has made it harder to deal with the storm, 49 percent said it had not had much effect — a split that mirrored the public's divided views on the war.

Many are questioning the wisdom of rebuilding sections of New Orleans, a city where many neighborhoods are below sea level. Only half of those interviewed — 49 percent — say the city should be rebuilt where it is but with a stronger levee system. But nearly as many — 43 percent — say low-lying areas should be abandoned, with those homes and businesses rebuilt on higher ground. Because as much as 80 percent of the city lies below sea level, such a radical step would mean many residents would not be able to rebuild in the city.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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