The water is going down slowly. The President's popularity is sinking like a stone

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The Independent US

A new poll published by AP put George Bush's popularity at below 40 per cent for the first time since he took office almost five years ago. Intriguingly, only 52 per cent of respondents said they specifically disapproved of his handling of the crisis along the Gulf coast. But 65 per cent - dismayed by soaring petrol prices and a whole panoply of other policy disappointments - said the country was heading in the wrong direction, up from 59 per cent a month ago. Even before the majority of the bodies have been fished out of the foul-smelling waters in New Orleans, the hurricane has triggered a knock-on political storm of rare intensity.

President Bush at first told his emergency management chief, Michael Brown, that he was doing "a heck of a job", only to relieve him of his hurricane relief responsibilities on Friday.

Mr Brown, and the administration, had endured days of intense criticism about the dearth of federal aid for days after Katrina hit. And Mr Brown only confirmed the widespread impression that he was completely unsuitable for the job by telling reporters in flood-stricken Louisiana moments after being ordered back to Washington: "I'm going to go home and walk my dog and hug my wife and maybe get a good Mexican meal and a stiff margarita and a full night's sleep."

As many commentators were quick to point out, the victims he had let down and left behind were sadly not afforded the same opportunity. Even conservative commentators have expressed their amazement at the apparent frivolity of President Bush and his allies in the face of the worst natural disaster in American history.

Texas congressman Tom DeLay, arguably the most powerful man in the House of Representatives, added his voice to a string of gaffes from the Bush family and others by telling a group of evacuees in a Houston shelter that their experiences were not all that different from attending summer camp.

"Now tell me the truth boys," Mr DeLay said, "is this kind of fun?"

In New Orleans itself, and along the ravaged coastline of Mississippi and Alabama, a greatly increased presence of police, National Guard and relief workers has stabilised what, for the first few days, had appeared to be a state of near-total anarchy. Rescue workers in New Orleans said the floodwaters were now receding at a pace of several inches a day - amounting to as much as two city blocks along some of the gentler inclines.

With most of the living now evacuated, officials are focusing on the gruesome task of recovering bodies - many of them bloated, decomposed, or gnawed at by animals. The media were excluded from accompanying official search parties, and a morgue set up in the small town of St Gabriel, on the way to Baton Rouge, did not issue updated figures on its body count.

But Homeland Security officials said initial indications were that the death toll might be significantly lower than the 10,000 previously feared. "Some of the catastrophic deaths that some people predicted may not have occurred," said Terry Ebbert, the Homeland Security chief for the city of New Orleans. It was impossible to verify his assessment and many residents, made wary by two weeks of unreliable official pronouncements, were taking a wait-and-see attitude. Some indications of light at the end of a very dark tunnel were nevertheless apparent.

The Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for the levee and drainage system in New Orleans that failed so spectacularly in Katrina's wake, now believes it will take just a month to dry out the city. Previously estimates had ranged anywhere from three months to a year.

As the country struggles with the consequences of widespread devastation and death, new stories continue to emerge about the federal government's various failures - relief supplies sent to non-existent staging posts, resources pumped into Texas and the Carolinas but not into Louisiana or Mississippi, families split up and flown to different parts of the country, in some cases without any advance knowledge of where the evacuees were being taken, and on and on.

In the middle of last week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency run by Mr Brown promised to distribute $2,000 debit cards to those left most destitute by the storm. The cards were distributed only in Texas, however, and by Friday the programme had been abandoned altogether. Jane Bullock, who was the agency's chief of staff under President Clinton, told reporters she couldn't believe the agency was killing one of the few "great ideas" to have come out of the relief effort.