Bush accused of exploiting hurricane in Florida as he offers aid to disaster area

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The Independent US

President George Bush flew into south-west Florida yesterday on a mission that was as much about politics as compassion for the area devastated by a hurricane over the weekend.

President George Bush flew into south-west Florida yesterday on a mission that was as much about politics as compassion for the area devastated by a hurricane over the weekend.

Accompanied by Jeb Bush, his brother and Governor of the state, and by Mike Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), the President toured - by helicopter and on land - Charlotte and Lee counties, which suffered the most damage by far from Hurricane Charley late on Friday.

He made the brief morning visit as a huge swath of central Florida struck by the storm was struggling to emerge from the debris and wreckage. The official death toll remained at 13 and as many as two million residents along the storm's path from the Gulf coast to the Atlantic remained without power. The cost of reconstruction is expected to exceed $10bn (£5.4bn).

For Mr Bush, the handling of the aftermath of Charley, the worst hurricane to hit Florida in a dozen years since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, could be crucial to his hopes of winning the state in the presidential election in November. Latest polls show his rival, John Kerry, with a slim edge in the state. Mr Bush will be heeding harsh lessons learned by his father, who was heavily criticised in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. In August 1992, three months before losing that year's contest to Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr came under criticism when he flew to the perimeter of the storm's worst damage south of Miami - and hastily left again.

After Andrew, moreover, there were loud complaints from local officials that the federal agencies, led by Fema, reacted much too slowly in getting assistance to the area. On being elected, Bill Clinton made the reform of Fema, which oversees all emergencies in the country, a top priority.

Experts also warned that Mr Bush faced a challenge trying to dispel any notion that he was trying to make political mileage out of the human tragedy left by the storm. If he achieves that, Charley may end up helping him recover support in a state which he snatched from Al Gore in 2000 by just 537 votes.

"The most politically useful trips of all are the, quote, 'non-political' ones," commented Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia. "Presidents never look better than when they appear to be acting decisively in situations such as these."

But with Jeb at his side yesterday, the President faced an uphill task avoiding the impression that he was politicising the storm. Perhaps most critically, however, was the challenge of ensuring that this time assistance gets to the state more quickly. Already, President Bush had declared 20 counties in Florida as federal disaster areas - making them eligible for millions of dollars in help.

Most urgently, Fema was under pressure to provide emergency housing for as many as 10,000 people whose homes, many of them mobile trailers, were destroyed by the Category 4 storm that came ashore in Charlotte County with winds up to 180mph.

"People's lives have been turned upside down," Mr Bush said as he stood outside the home of Gary Nickols in Punta Gorda, a town of 15,000 that suffered the worst of the devastation. Mr Nickols, 57, had fled to a local church on Friday night and had returned to find his house mostly intact.

Mr Bush was quick to praise the emergency workers in the state, and by extension the administration of his brother. "There is a lot of help moving into this part of the world," he said, before leaving by helicopter for Fort Myers, where he picked up Air Force One and returned to Washington.

While the worst of the calamity was in Punta Gorda and nearby Port Charlotte, many other parts of the state were also trying to make sense of the storm's wrath. Most of Orlando remained without power and many areas had no safe water supply. Orlando, which saw its main theme parks, including Walt Disney World, get back into business on Saturday, has not seen hurricane force winds for 40 years.