Bush makes second visit to disaster zone as criticism mounts

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The Independent US

George Bush has paid his second visit in four days to the hurricane-shattered US Gulf Coast, in a fresh attempt to show he is capable of handling the natural disaster that threatens to overwhelm his presidency.

He and his wife, Laura, visited a church in Louisiana's state capital Baton Rouge, which has become an improvised shelter for refugees from New Orleans, 80 miles to the south-east, before heading for the Mississippi town of Poplarville, all but laid waste when the eye of Katrina passed over it last Monday.

But neither Mr Bush's travels, nor visits by senior officials, nor the first signs of progress in dealing with the aftermath of the storm have quelled the bitter complaints that the federal government was far too slow in its response to the crisis.

"I'm not interested in hand shaking and photo-ops, this is going to take a lot of money," said Mildred Brown, who has been in the shelter since Tuesday.

The President yesterday insisted the government was doing everything in its power to deal with the worst natural disaster in recent US history, which has taken thousands of lives and inflicted up to $100bn (£54bn) of damage - only a quarter of which will be recovered from insurers.

All along the 150 worst afflicted miles of coast, the first of 8,500 regular army forces and Marines arrived to set up camp and help rescue operations, joining 40,000 National Guardsmen.

The former presidents George Bush snr and Bill Clinton launched the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, which will go towards disaster relief and medical services in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, the states affected.

But federal and local authorities, and the two political parties are engaged in a blame game over who was responsible for the initially botched relief operation.

Off the record, White House officials criticise the local authorities for failing to organise a proper evacuation, and to provide food, water and shelter for those left behind. But state and city officials insist they have been let down by central government. Mary Landrieu, Louisiana's Democratic Senator, said on television at the weekend that she would "punch" Mr Bush or anyone else who blamed the local police for their shortcomings.

Mr Clinton and his wife, Hillary, the New York Senator, have called for a Congressional inquiry into the government's handling of the storm and its aftermath as the House and Senate re-assemble today after the summer recess.

President Bush risks losing control of his legislative agenda unless he convinces both parties that he is in charge of the situation. Major question marks surround plans to bring in further tax cuts, and curb healthcare spending, especially for the poor.