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Hurricane Katrina

Bush: Help first, investigate later

Vice President Cheney will visit the Gulf Coast on Thursday and focus on whether red tape slowed the federal response to the emergency.

Published September 7, 2005

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WASHINGTON - Stung by criticism that the government was sluggish responding to Hurricane Katrina, President Bush vowed to conduct an investigation and said Vice President Cheney would travel to the Gulf Coast to survey the damage.

Bush met with Cabinet secretaries Tuesday and said he told them, "This administration is not going to rest until every life can be saved, until families are reconnected, until this recovery is complete."

Bush said he would "lead an investigation to find out what went right and what went wrong," but did not provide details. He and his aides would not discuss any shortcomings of the federal effort.

"I think one of the things that people want us to do here is to play a blame game," Bush said. "We've got to solve problems. We're problem-solvers. There will be ample time for people to figure out what went right and what went wrong. What I'm interested in is helping save lives."

At a contentious afternoon briefing, Bush's press secretary Scott McClellan repeatedly dodged questions about the problems and if Bush still had faith in Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Last week, Bush said, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

At the briefing Tuesday, a reporter asked McClellan, "Is Brownie still doing a heck of a job?"

McClellan did not answer. But he said, "We've got to continue to do everything we can in support of those who are involved in the operational aspects of this response effort."

McClellan was asked if the president failed to order a massive military response. "It could have been ordered on Sunday, on Monday, on Tuesday. The call didn't come," a reporter said. "Why not?"

McClellan said the government had positioned supplies and employees so they could be moved in quickly after the storm. "The president issued disaster declarations ahead of time so that we could make sure we're fully mobilizing resources and prepositioning them. But this was a hurricane of unprecedented magnitude."

Cheney will tour the area Thursday to assess the recovery effort and will focus on whether red tape slowed the federal response.

"Bureaucracy is not going to stand in the way of getting the job done for the people," Bush said.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats lambasted Bush.

"Instead of unconscionably blaming others, President Bush must take charge and take responsibility, and must get it right," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader.

Late Tuesday afternoon, she met with Bush at the White House and urged him to fire Brown. "The president thanked me for my suggestion," the California Democrat told reporters afterward.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., introduced a bill that would require the head of FEMA to have at least four years of experience in emergency management. Nelson has criticized Brown for his agency's slow response.

Republican senators emerged from their weekly luncheon echoing the White House theme: Now is not the time for blame. Now is the time for helping survivors.

Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said the Congress "needs to be forward-looking, forward-thinking."

Even Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., whose 150-year-old family home in Pascagoula was destroyed by Katrina, said he asked fellow Republican Sen. Susan Collins, chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, not to hold hearings that would interrupt the work of federal relief officials. Collins and the ranking Democrat, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, had called for hearings earlier in the day.

"I'm not one trying to run around, trying to fix blame," Lott said. "It's never perfect after a disaster."

Lott also praised the president's leadership and lauded him for visiting the Gulf Coast to personally tour the devastation. He acknowledged that it may have been a mistake to demote the Federal Emergency Management Agency from Cabinet status and roll it into the Department of Homeland Security, but said Congress was at fault.

"You can't blame that on anybody but us. We made the decision."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

[Last modified September 7, 2005, 02:17:00]

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