Bush faces new questions on relief

With US President George W. Bush promising to speed up help to anxious and frustrated survivors of Hurricane Katrina, questions emerged on Friday over the qualifications of those leading the relief effort.

Many of those at the top of the US agency charged with managing disaster relief had no emergency oversight experience but did have political ties to Bush, the Washington Post reported.

In addition, embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown had less experience in disaster relief than described in his official agency biography and cited during his confirmation hearing, Time magazine reported. It quoted a local official as saying a prior job was "more like an intern" than a manager.

Along the US Gulf Coast, rescue and recovery teams continued searching for the dead and trying to evacuate the few remaining holdouts from the once vibrant New Orleans, today a flooded and foul-smelling ghost town.

In Washington, Bush administration officials were busy rushing fresh aid to the region while also trying to blunt the political fallout over the federal response to what could be the costliest natural disaster in US history, estimated between US$100 billion to US$200 billion.

Approval rating falls

A Pew Research Centre poll found 67 per cent of Americans thought Bush could have done more to speed up relief efforts, and just 28 per cent believed he did all he could. The president's approval rating fell to 40 per cent, down four points since July to the lowest point Pew has recorded.

Colin Powell, the former US secretary of state and a possible leader for Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts, criticized the disaster response by all levels of government in an interview to be broadcast on Friday.

"There was more than enough warning over time about the dangers to New Orleans," Powell said in excerpts of the "20/20" programme interview posted on the ABC website. "Not enough was done. I don't think advantage was taken of the time that was available to us, and I just don't know why."

The Washington Post reported that five of eight top officials of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials had come to their jobs with virtually no experience in handling disasters.

The agency's top three leaders, including Brown, had ties to Bush's 2000 presidential campaign or the White House team that lays the groundwork for presidential trips.

Brown's biography on the agency website said he had once served as an "assistant city manager with emergency services oversight." But Time quoted an official in Edmond, Oklahoma as saying the job was actually "assistant to the city manager," with little responsibility.

"The assistant is more like an intern," city spokeswoman Claudia Deakins told the magazine. "Department heads did not report to him."

In response to the report on Time's website, FEMA issued a statement that took issue with elements related to an unofficial biography, and described his job in Edmond as "assistant to the city manager."

Critics, including some Republicans, have blasted Brown for delays and missteps in the federal government's response to Katrina's deadly and devastating assault on New Orleans and the US Gulf Coast last week. Some have demanded his ouster.

Cheney's visit

The president sent Vice-President Dick Cheney to Mississippi and Louisiana on Thursday to help untangle bureaucratic red tape that had triggered complaints from some of the 1 million people displaced by the storm.

Cheney rode through the streets of downtown New Orleans in a humvee, the highest-ranking Bush administration official to visit the shattered city centre.

Asked about bureaucratic problems, Cheney said: "I think the progress we're making is significant. I think the performance in general, at least in terms of the information I've received from locals, is definitely very impressive."

Congress on Thursday pushed through approval for US$51.8 billion in new aid, after an earlier US$10.5 billion was exhausted in the first days since the storm hit on August 29.

Bush immediately signed the measure. "More resources will be needed as we work to help people get back on their feet," he said.

Part of the help Bush announced at the White House was a programme to give families affected by the storm US$2,000 in emergency disaster relief.

However, FEMA has suspended its programme to give out US$2,000 debit cards and said evacuees other than those at the Houston Astrodome will receive direct bank deposits or cheques sent by mail.

"When you get inside the affected state of Louisiana, where you have hundreds of thousands of victims, it overruns the system," said Vick Howell, CEO of the Capital Area Red Cross in Baton Rouge.

Bush also issued an executive order on Thursday allowing federal contractors rebuilding in the aftermath of the hurricane to pay below the prevailing wage, drawing rebukes from two congressional Democrats who said stricken families need good wages to rebuild their lives.

Death toll

The official death toll surpassed 300 in the two hardest hit states when Louisiana officials said they had confirmed 118 deaths, on top of 201 in neighbouring Mississippi. Thousands more may still be missing, but the extent of the carnage remains unknown.

In New Orleans, police and National Guard troops were trying to persuade residents still in New Orleans to leave the one-time city of 450,000 people.

The below-sea level city was inundated by levee breaks following the storm, and homes and streets filled up with dark-brown water poisoned by bacteria, gasoline, oil, chemicals and submerged bodies.

In New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers said about an eighth of the city's pumping capacity was back in service, draining fetid water from the city.

As the steady trickle of holdouts left, they were taken to a collection centre where their bags were checked by soldiers for weapons. Medical attention was given to those needing it, and all were handed cold water or soft drinks. They were also offered copies of the New Testament supplied by church groups.

Source: China Daily

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