Bush tours New Orleans to repair damaged presidency

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The Independent US

Almost all of his public remarks were defensive ­ denying there was any racial bias in the way the federal authorities responded to the victims in a predominantly poor, black city, and denying that the war in Iraq had in any way drained away resources from rescue efforts.

"The storm didn't discriminate and neither will the recovery effort," he insisted, despite vocal criticism from black New Orleans residents, civil rights leaders and some Democrats that the government would almost certainly have moved more quickly if the stricken area had been whiter and richer. "Preposterous" was his response to the widespread charge that the war in Iraq had depleted the National Guard and diverted resources from disaster management.

The President even sought to defend his now-notorious comment, early in the crisis, that nobody could have foreseen the levees breaking in New Orleans ­ an observation contradicted by years of government studies and a simulation exercise by his administration as recently as last year. He told reporters he was referring only to the "sense of relaxation in a critical moment" in the aftermath of Katrina, when it appeared initially New Orleans had been spared the worst.

Mostly, however, the President did little talking, focusing his efforts on discussions with state and local officials, in particular the Mayor of the city, Ray Nagin, who has been one of his most outspoken critics, and on seeing the flood damage for himself.

Dressed in crisp shirt-sleeves, he looked, from the moment he emerged from Air Force One on Sunday afternoon, like a man ready and determined to get down to work. "We're moving on; we're going to solve these problems," he said.

This was the President's third visit to the hurricane-battered region but his first to New Orleans, now virtually a ghost city apart from the heavy presence of armed police and military personnel. Many of the residents most angry at the failures of his government's response, who might have turned an earlier trip to the city into a furious heckling exercise, are long gone.

His visit coincided, rather, with a modest rise in New Orleans' fortunes. The airport reopened for cargo traffic on Sunday and is expected to resume limited commercial flights today. The US Army Corps of Engineers reports that water levels are going down faster than expected ­ something borne out by the evidence on the ground, where several city blocks are being reclaimed each day ­ and that the entire city may be drained as soon as the beginning of next month.

Business owners in the dry parts of the city ­ encompassing the central business district and the tourist areas of the French Quarter ­ were also invited back for the first time yesterday to inspect their properties and retrieve documents and stock.

The President spent the night on the aircraft carrier Iwo Jima, docked at New Orleans and serving as a command and control centre for the federal disaster response. He spent Sunday afternoon huddled with key local leaders including Mr Nagin, Governor Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana and Lieutenant General Russel Honore, the senior local military commander.

All parties appeared interested in mending fences after a fraught week in which state and local officials have heaped blame on the federal government for compounding the hurricane disaster, and federal officials, including the White House spokesman, Scott McLellan, have simply lobbed the blame back in the other direction.

President Bush also toured a staging area for the military and first-responder teams and took care, on the fourth anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Centre, to meet and greet representatives of the New York fire department now stationed in southeastern Louisiana.

Yesterday's tour, in a four-vehicle convoy, took him through the business district and some of the higher parts of town spared the flooding, and on to the poorer residential neighbourhoods where streets have turned into foul-smelling stagnant pools with downed trees and power lines.