Tom Raum: The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — President Bush for the first time took responsibility Tuesday for federal government mistakes in dealing with Hurricane Katrina and suggested the calamity raised broader questions about the government’s ability to handle both natural disasters and terror attacks.
“Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government,” Bush said at a joint White House news conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
“And to the extent that the federal government didn’t fully do its job right, I take responsibility. I want to know what went right and what went wrong,” said Bush.
Facing sharp criticism and the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, Bush scheduled a speech to the nation from Louisiana for Thursday evening. It will be his fourth trip to the devastated Gulf Coast since the storm struck two weeks ago.
It was the closest Bush has come to publicly faulting any federal officials involved in the hurricane response, which has been widely criticized as disjointed and slow. Some federal officials have sought to blame state and local officials for being unprepared to cope with the disaster.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., welcomed Bush’s conciliatory remarks. “Accountability at every level is critical, and leadership begins at the top,” she said.
Other Democrats were less charitable.
“The season has come for Americans to look homeward … instead of continuing to spend billions of dollars in Iraq,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.
And Louisiana’s Democratic governor, Kathleen Blanco, accused the Federal Emergency Management Agency of moving too slowly in recovering the bodies. The dead “deserve more respect than they have received,” she said at state police headquarters in Baton Rouge.
Meanwhile, R. David Paulison, in his first full day on the job as acting FEMA director, told reporters in Washington the government would step up its efforts to find more permanent housing for the tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors now in shelters.
“We’re going to get those people out of the shelters, and we’re going to move and get them the help they need,” Paulison said.
Bush selected him to replace Michael Brown, who resigned on Monday after being recalled as the top onsite disaster-relief coordinator. Brown, a Republican lawyer with little previous disaster-management experience, drew fierce criticism for his handling of the crisis.
Paulison, a career firefighter with 30 years of rescue experience, said he was busy “getting brought up to speed.” Bush promised him in a Monday night phone call that he would have “the full support of the federal government,” Paulison said.
The storm displaced a million people, destroyed large areas of cities and communities and heavily damaged roads, bridges, canals and oil and natural gas facilities.
Bush’s acceptance of responsibility came in response to a reporter’s question on whether the United States was capable of handling another terrorist attack, given its halting and widely criticized response to Katrina.
“That’s a very important question,” Bush said. “And it’s in our national interest that we find out exactly what went on — so that we can better respond.”
“I’m not going to defend the process going in, but I am going to defend the people who are on the front line of saving lives,” he added. “I also want people in America to understand how hard people are working to save lives down there in not only New Orleans, but surrounding parishes and along the Gulf Coast.”
Also on Tuesday:
• Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said teams of federal auditors would scrutinize billions of dollars worth of government contracts. “We’re going to cut through red tape, but we’re not going to cut through laws and rules that govern ethics,” he said. Congress has appropriated more than $60 billion for reconstruction. The Democratic National Committee accused the administration on Tuesday of “giving no-bid contracts to Bush’s political cronies.”
• Farm-state Democrats said they would ask for emergency money for farmers pummeled by Katrina as well as those struggling under high energy prices, drought and other natural disasters. Energy costs alone will shave farm incomes for North Dakota farmers by one-third to one-half, said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.
• Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said some military aircraft and other equipment may be able to move out of the Gulf Coast soon. “We’ve got to the point where most if not all of the search and rescue is completed,” said Rumsfeld, who is attending a NATO meeting in Berlin. He said nothing will be moved out of the area without the authorization of governors, the military leaders there and the president.
• A group of Democratic senators pressed Congress for a $5 billion upgrade of communications equipment that would make it easier for police, firefighters and other law enforcement authorities to talk to each other during emergencies. A similar measure was rejected in July as part of a homeland security bill. “They must be able to communicate with each other. This is a life and death issue,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.