Bush whirls in for a political salvage mission

PRESIDENT George Bush returned to south Florida yesterday to help salvage areas devastated last week by Hurricane Andrew, as well as rescue his political career. Like the Dutch boy in the story of the leaking dyke, Mr Bush may find it tougher than he expects to plug the holes left by the storm in Miami and those in his re-election campaign.

The visit capped a frantic four-day effort by the President to defuse criticism of his response to Hurricane Andrew in south Florida where the storm wreaked its greatest damage. Eight days after the hurricane ripped through south Florida, 230,000 people have no electricity, at least 150,000 are either homeless or living in ruins and thousands forage each day for food and ice.

The tempo of government aid is quickening and 18,000 federal troops deployed in the relief effort have brought food supplies and a much-needed psychological lift to south Florida, but the bulk of efforts to help victims has been shouldered by local government and private relief agencies.

Anxious not to make it seem that the government effort was lacking, Mr Bush said he was 'proud of the federal response' and thanked volunteers profusely for the work they had done to relieve the suffering of thousands. At the City Hall in Homestead, being used as an emergency operation headquarters, Mr Bush announced that Washington would pick up the tab for the public assistance and relief efforts to the area. This came as a great relief to the state of Florida and Governor Lawton Childs who had warned that Florida could be bankrupted by the damage left by the hurricane, now estimated to be close to dollars 30bn ( pounds 15bn). Insurance companies are facing a bill of dollars 7.3bn. The state of Florida would have had to pay 10 per cent of public relief efforts, had Mr Bush not come to his rescue.

The President announced that he was going to rebuild Homestead air force base which had been flattened by the 165mph wind of the storm. The airbase contributes dollars 410m annually to the local economy.

Before arriving at the operations centre, Mr Bush toured the worst-hit areas of Homestead, never missing an opportunity to stop and hug a child for the cameras. Although to the cynical observer it may appear that Mr Bush was on the stump, he was at pains to deny any political link between his re-election campaign and his management of the emergency.

'We are here to help. This has nothing to do with partisanship. It is not a political thing. It has everything to do with helping the family,' the President said. Mr Bush said that he wanted to show Florida that his government was with the victims of the hurricane 'for the long haul'. 'We won't leave this job until we've finished'. Others, however, saw his trip in a different light.

'It sounded to me like a campaign speech,' said Gerry Henry, who until last week worked at Homestead air force base. 'He came here a week ago Monday. He should have made those decisions then. What did he see today that he did not see then? This trip was political.' Henry's wife, Shirley, said that she felt people would be more favourably disposed towards the President when they saw more federal action on the ground. 'His feet should trot as fast as his mouth is flapping,' she said.

Ed Odell, a local commentator, said that he thought people were not so concerned about the politics of Mr Bush's visit. 'I think people down here are so concerned about their well-being that to anybody coming down here that has the power to help them, they will say, well, so be it. Remember these people are so desperate for shelter that if they saw a voting booth all they would want to do would be move in.'

Mr Henry said he benefited from the army's deployment here when he received follow-up treatment for a storm injury.

By the end of this week there should be 20,000 federal troops in south Florida, making it the biggest relief operation ever mounted. Mr Bush hopes their presence will counter criticism that he was slow to respond to the tragedy in Florida, an essential state for him to win in November.

But many problems remain. An invisible cloud of glass fibre blown from the roofs of houses and trailer homes, hangs in the air over the devastated area. There is no running water and many residents complain of irritated skin and eyes. The air smells like rubbish; the putrid odour is from spoiled food and the debris left by the storm. Doctors are concerned about a widespread breakdown in sanitation and hygiene which may leave the area vulnerable to disease. A tent city that was to have been inspected by Mr Bush was not ready for lack of sanitation.

The situation is compounded by temperatures in excess of 90F and torrential rains which are bringing out mosquitoes. Military units are to collect rubbish and to help with health problems in coming days. More difficult will be the task of condemning houses and ordering people into tent cities that are springing up in Homestead. Many residents said they would refuse to go, afraid that they may miss a visit by an insurance agent who would authorise money to rebuild their homes.

(Photograph omitted)

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