SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Determined to avoid the mistakes made with Hurricane Katrina, U.S. President George W. Bush toured fire-ravaged Southern California on Thursday and promised to do everything possible to help the region recover.
Bush, heavily criticized for the federal government’s slow response when Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, wasted little time in getting a first-hand look at the damage from wildfires that ranged from Malibu to the U.S.-Mexican border.
Taking a helicopter tour with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bush surveyed swathes of scorched acreage, smoke rising from fire-blackened hillsides, and one hilltop neighborhood where about a dozen homes lay in charred ruins.
Bush’s visit to San Diego County, hardest hit by the five-day-old inferno, was aimed in part at showcasing his administration’s ability to respond better to natural disasters.
Bush brushed aside comparisons between the federal response to Katrina and the California wildfires.
“There’s all kinds of time for historians to compare this response or that response,” he said. “I’m thinking about people whose lives turned upside down. The experts can try to figure out if the response was perfect.”
But in an apparent dig at state authorities in Louisiana, which bore the brunt of Katrina, he said: “It makes a significant difference when you have somebody in the statehouse willing to take the lead.”
Bush has declared a “major disaster” in seven counties, triggering extra federal help, while dispatching top administration officials to oversee assistance. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, criticized along with Bush for the chaos following Katrina, had 1,000 people on the ground in Southern California.
Bush and Schwarzenegger comforted a couple who lost their home and inspected the ruins, where a metal interior staircase was all that remained standing. Across the street, other red tile stucco-roofed homes stood untouched by the flames.
Standing with his arm draped around the shoulders of Kendra Jeffcoat, whose house had burned to the ground, Bush said, “We know how tough it is for you,” as Jeffcoat’s eyes filled with tears. “The American people care for people like you who are suffering.”
Schwarzenegger heaped praise on the federal effort. “I call this quick action, quicker than I expected,” he said.
WALLS OF FLAME
On the ground, firefighters were making headway as hot winds abated, but they were still battling walls of flame licking hillsides and canyons while the skies remained choked with thick smoke.
Bush has taken pains to show a quick response to the fires and assure Americans he is deeply engaged in the biggest test of the government’s revamped disaster response capabilities since Katrina.
Many in New Orleans, which has not fully recovered from Katrina, have accused the federal government of neglecting their plight as well as botching the initial response by taking days to evacuate stranded residents.
“And the final reason I’ve come is to let you know we’re not going to forget you in Washington, D.C.,” Bush said flanked by firetrucks with dozens of firefighters looking on.
While trying to play down comparisons, the White House insists it has learned its lesson from the botched handling of Katrina, which contributed to a fall in Bush’s popularity.
“We’ve seen a disaster response operating exactly the way it’s supposed to,” Bush’s homeland security adviser, Fran Townsend, told reporters aboard Air Force One.
But some experts say the relatively smooth handling of the emergency effort is more a tribute to California’s preparedness than any major improvement in the federal government’s approach.
The California trip was a chance for Bush to act as consoler-in-chief, and the White House hoped it would show the president in a better light than the Katrina aftermath.
But even before Bush set foot in California, Democratic Lt. Gov. John Garamendi called it a “public relations” move of dubious value and voiced concern the visit would distract from firefighting efforts.
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