Bush sends top officials to disaster zone while political crisis deepens

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The Independent US

"I think it's evident it's in the thousands," Michael Leavitt, the Health Secretary, said. Ray Nagin, the Mayor of submerged New Orleans, where corpses are floating in the flooded streets, suggested that in his city alone, that number or more may have died.

The pre-storm evacuation of the city and those taken out since failed to account for 50,000 to 60,000 people, he estimated. "You do the math, man, what do you think? Five per cent is unreasonable? 10 per cent? 20 per cent? It's going to be a big number."

Yesterday Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, went to New Orleans airport, which has become an emergency medical centre for refugees from the city. Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State and the most senior black member of Mr Bush's cabinet, was in Mobile, in her home state Alabama.

Besieged by criticism that he was far too late in grasping the scale of the crisis and mobilising the army, Mr Bush himself has torn up his schedule, and will visit the region today. He has also cancelled an important meeting planned for Wednesday with President Hu Jintao of China - again to demonstrate that he was devoting his entire attention to a natural disaster that could yet overwhelm his presidency.

More than 7,000 regular army troops are being sent to the region, as well as a further 10,000 national guardsmen, raising the total of the latter to 40,000. Order appears to have been restored, and in a few areas electricity has returned. But in the afflicted region, bitterness if anything is growing at how the authorities failed to provide help for the victims, predominantly poor and black. Mary Landrieu, the Democratic senator for Louisiana and a New Orleans native, dismissed Mr Bush's first visit to the region - a full five days after the storm struck - as "a photo-op".

Other local officials were even angrier. "We have been abandoned by our own country," Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, to the west and south of the city, told NBC's Meet the Press programme. "Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area, and bureaucracy has to stand trial before Congress now."

But the agony of New Orleans is only part of the story. Vast swaths of the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coastline were inundated and virtually razed. Relief efforts are intense but only the most temporary palliative.

Lack of drinking water is a major worry. There were reports yesterday of dysentery in Biloxi, the Mississippi city which bore the full brunt of the storm. "We need to prepare the country for what's coming," said Michael Chertoff, the head of the Homeland Security Department, the department in charge of handling the crisis, and which has been criticised for its unpreparedness.

"When the water was removed from New Orleans, we're going to uncover people who died, maybe hiding in houses, or whose remains are going to be found in the streets," he said. It would be "about as ugly a scene as ... you can imagine".

The same may be true in political terms, especially for the Republicans, who are bound to be held most accountable for the botched response to the crisis. In Katrina's wake, Mr Bush's congressional agenda of cuts in taxes and health services for the needy may now be untenable.

The President, of course, does not face re-election, but his hold on his party will be badly weakened unless he shows he has a real grip on the crisis. Republican Congressmen and Senators whose seats come up in 2006 are worried about a political backlash. Other Republicans mulling a 2008 White House run may distance themselves from him.

Most telling is the absence of criticism from top Democrats. These latter have been mostly silent - calculating probably that the Republicans are already suffering political damage enough, and that attacks from them would be dismissed by the White House as partisan "politics as usual" by a disgruntled minority party.