Bush takes charge of inquiry into slow hurricane response

GEORGE Bush risked further antagonising his critics yesterday by rejecting calls for an independent commission to examine what went wrong in the handling of Hurricane Katrina and announced instead that he would personally lead an investigation.

Mr Bush said he was not in the business of finger-pointing and insisted it was important to establish whether the United States could respond to another major storm or an attack with weapons of mass destruction. But the US Congress, apparently unprepared to accept a single presidential inquiry, said it would hold its own hearings.

"Government at all levels failed," the Republican senator Susan Collins said after meeting the president. Announcing that the Senate governmental affairs committee would hold its own investigation, she added: "It is difficult to understand the lack of preparedness and the ineffective initial response to a disaster that had been predicted for years and for which specific dire warnings had been given for days."

On another difficult day for the president, his mother, Barbara Bush, ventured on to dangerous ground after meeting evacuees, suggesting that some of the poor who had been victims of the hurricane were benefiting from their evacuation. "So many of the people here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them," she chuckled after a tour of the Houston Astrodome in Texas. "What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality."

She later reiterated her views. "Look what's happened. Hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated and are in comfortable shelters."

Mrs Bush, who was accompanying her husband, the former president George Bush snr, as he and his successor, Bill Clinton, launched a national fund-raising campaign, went on: "Almost everyone I've talked to says 'We're going to move to Houston'."

Her son has faced intense criticism of his and the federal government's handling of the crisis in New Orleans and the failure to respond sooner when the scale of the disaster became clear.

Yesterday, as efforts continued to repair the breached levees which let in the floodwater and preparations were made at a giant morgue to receive the thousands of bodies expected to be recovered when the water recedes, Mr Bush called congressional leaders to the White House for their first meeting since Katrina struck.

Stung by the criticism he has faced, he said later: "What I intend to do is lead an investigation to find out what went right and what went wrong.

"We still live in an unsettled world. We want to make sure we can respond properly if there is a WMD attack or another major storm."

But he rejected calls for a commission to investigate the response to the hurricane, insisting it was not the time to point fingers. "One of the things people want us to do here is play the blame game," he said. "We got to solve problems. There will be ample time to figure out what went right and what went wrong."

Mr Bush also announced he was sending Dick Cheney, the vice-president, to the Gulf coast area on Thursday to help determine whether the government was doing all it could. "Bureaucracy is not going to stand in the way of getting the job done for the people," he said.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan rejected suggestions that the poor, and particularly black residents, had been abandoned when New Orleans was evacuated.

"I think most Americans dismiss that and know that there's just no basis for making such suggestions," he said. "We are focused on saving and sustaining lives of all those who have been affected."

Congress returned from a five-week summer break yesterday, signalling the hurricane would take top billing on the agenda in the coming weeks.

A total of 8.4 billion has been approved as a downpayment for hurricane relief, but Democrats indicated that they would request up to 40 billion as a next instalment.

Rebecca Kirszner, an aide to the Democratic leader Harry Reid, said that "from what we know right now, the relief efforts could reach or exceed 120 billion, money targeted largely to health care, housing assistance and education".

A total of 96 Britons were still unaccounted for, although the Foreign Office said there had been no confirmed casualties.

British survivors continued to arrive back in the UK yesterday, many to emotional reunions. Michelle Andrews' parents, Stephen, 46, a college lecturer, and Sharon, 44, a hairdresser, ran through the arrivals hall at Gatwick Airport to greet her.

The 20-year-old student said police in New Orleans had told her to "fend for herself" among dead bodies and men toting guns in the hours after the disaster. "It was absolutely terrifying and I feared for my life", said Ms Andrews, from Pontyclun in South Wales.

Meanwhile, US military helicopters dropped 16,000lb sandbags into the gaps in New Orleans' levees in an attempt to re-seal them.

With one major levee break finally plugged, engineers struggled to pump out the flooded city as authorities braced for the horrors the receding water would reveal.

The city's mayor, Ray Nagin, has warned of as many as 10,000 deaths. He said it would take three weeks to remove the water and another few weeks to clear the debris. It could also take up to eight weeks to get the electricity back on. "I've gone from anger to despair to seeing us turn the corner," he said.

Efforts to evacuate those people still trapped were stepped up, with boat rescue crews and a convoy of law enforcement vehicles from around the country searching for people to rescue. "In some cases, it's real easy. They're sitting on the porch with their bags packed," said Joe Youdell of the Kentucky Air National Guard. "But some don't want to leave and we can't force them."

The mayor said those who did not want to go would have to be convinced to do so. "It's not safe here," he said. "There is toxic waste in the water and dead bodies and mosquitoes and gas. Fires have been started and we don't have running water."

At the same time, the effort to get the evacuees back on their feet continued on several fronts. Patrick Rhode, the deputy director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that evacuees would receive debit cards so that they could begin buying necessary personal items.

He said his agency was going from shelter to shelter to make sure that the evacuees received their cards quickly and that the paperwork would be reduced or eliminated.

However, local officials continued to express their bitter frustration with the federal government's sluggish response as the tragedy unfolded.

Aaron Broussard, the president of suburban Jefferson Parish, said: "Bureaucracy has murdered people in the greater New Orleans area. And bureaucracy needs to stand trial before Congress today. So I'm asking Congress, please investigate this now. Take whatever idiot they have at the top of whatever agency and give me a better idiot. Give me a caring idiot. Give me a sensitive idiot. Just don't give me the same idiot."

As the heartbreaking relief work continues on the Gulf coast, insurers are bracing themselves for massive payouts. Yesterday, Dane Douetil, the chief executive of one large US firm, Brit Insurance, said the cost could be as high as $50 billion.

"Be in no doubt this is the largest insured loss that has ever occurred," he said. "It would be more prudent to work on an industry loss of nearer $50 billion than $35 billion." But a senior executive at Lloyd's of London sought to play down talk of such a big industry loss.

• A huge stretch of Florida's Atlantic coast was under a tropical storm warning last night as a new weather system formed just offshore and threatened to dump up to 15 inches of rain in parts of the state. The tropical depression could strengthen into tropical storm Ophelia by today. Florida has been hit by six hurricanes since August 2004.

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