Thousands are feared dead in New Orleans and adjoining areas and hospitals are without electricity or key medical supplies, struggling to keep critically ill patients alive.
Conditions are appalling at the city’s two main emergency shelters — the Superdome and the convention centre — with abandoned dead bodies on the ground or propped up in chairs.
Armed troops rolled in to try and restore order to the chaos in New Orleans on Friday, bringing emergency supplies for the desperate survivors of Hurricane Katrina, in the first sign of significant relief after days of delays and broken promises.
Kicking off a day-long visit to Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, President Bush expressed astonishment at the destruction, saying: “It’s as if the entire Gulf Coast were obliterated by the worst kind of weapon you can imagine.”
With much of the world aghast at Washington’s fiercely criticized reaction to the killer storm, the president hedged his defence of relief efforts, saying as he left the White House that “the results are not acceptable.”
“My attitude is, if it’s not going exactly right, we’re going to make it go exactly right. If there’s problems, then we’ll address the problems,” President Bush said.
The president was bringing a help-is-on-the-way message to many who felt abandoned by Washington, whose response drew rising anger and scorn from New Orleans’ natives and the once glittering jazz capital’s mayor.
President Bush bluntly dismissed calls for the United States to cut back its efforts in Iraq to shift funds from the war there to cope with the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in US history.
“We’ve got plenty of resources to do both,” said President Bush, whose approval ratings have slipped to some of their lowest levels since he took office.
The president vowed to restore order in New Orleans, where rampant looting and wrecked infrastructure have hampered relief efforts, though local officials have also blamed poor planning and a slow response from Washington.
“Out of New Orleans is going to come that great city again. That’s what’s going to happen. But now we’re in the darkest days, and so we got a lot of work to do,” he said at Mobile regional airport in Alabama.
“It’s too doggone late!” New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin fired back in an angry and emotional interview aired on CNN. “Now get off your asses and let’s do something and fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country.”
Later, however, President Bush and Mayor Nagin were filmed shaking hands before the president embarked on an aerial tour of New Orleans.
Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Karen Finney accused President Bush of merely “posing for photo-ops (opportunities)” and failing to get food and water to needy areas.
“Why is it that President Bush was able to send food and supplies to Afghanistan the same day our invasion began, but it has taken five days to even begin to send supplies to New Orleans?” she said in a statement.
President Bush took aerial tours of coastal Alabama as well as Mississippi, where he took a walking tour through rubble-strewn Biloxi.
Later, he was to view the flooded and lawless city of New Orleans and make public remarks at its airport.
In Alabama, President Bush held an on-camera briefing with Federal Emergency Management Agency director Mike Brown as well as the governors of Alabama and Mississippi and regional relief officials.
It has been estimated that engineers may need up to 80 days to remove Hurricane Katrina’s flood waters from the swamped New Orleans, a senior US Army Corps of Engineers official said on Friday.
Work crews gained control over one of the breaches in the levee on Friday and expected to have another major gap closed on Saturday, Brigadier General Robert Crear told reporters.
“We’re looking at anywhere from 36 to 80 days to being done,” Brigadier Crear said.