Bush: Emergency Plans for All American Cities to Be Scrutinized

WASHINGTON -- Taxpayers will pay the bill for the massive reconstruction program outlined by President George W. Bush for the hurricane ravaged-Gulf Coast and the huge expense will worsen the U.S. budget deficit, White House officials said Friday.

With disaster costs estimated at $200 billion (euro163.36 billion) and beyond, Al Hubbard, director of Bush's National Economic Council, said, "It's coming from the American taxpayer." He acknowledged the costs would swell the deficit - projected at $333 billion (euro271.99 billion) for the current year before Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast.

Bush, in an address to the United States Thursday night, said the recovery effort would be one of the largest reconstruction projects the world has ever seen. He promised that the federal government would pay for most of it.

Claude Allen, the president's domestic policy adviser, said the administration had not identified any budget cuts to offset the disaster expense.

The government failed to respond adequately to Hurricane Katrina, Bush said. Dogged by criticism that Washington's response to the hurricane was slow and inadequate, Bush said the United States has "every right to expect" more effective federal action in a time of emergency such as Katrina. The hurricane killed hundreds of people across five states, forced major evacuations and caused untold property damage.

Disaster planning must be a "national security priority," he said, while ordering the Homeland Security Department to undertake an immediate review of emergency plans in every major American city.

"Our cities must have clear and up-to-date plans for responding to natural disasters and disease outbreaks or a terrorist attack, for evacuating large numbers of people in an emergency and for providing the food and water and security they would need," Bush said.

He acknowledged that government agencies lacked coordination and were overwhelmed by Katrina and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans. He said a disaster on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces. He ordered all Cabinet secretaries to join in a comprehensive review of the government's faulty response.

"When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I as president am responsible for the problem, and for the solution," Bush said, looking into the camera that broadcast his speech live on the major television networks from historic Jackson Square in the heart of the French Quarter. "This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina."

Bush faced the nation at a vulnerable point in his presidency. Most Americans disapprove of his handling of Katrina, and his job-approval rating has been dragged down to the lowest point of his presidency also because of dissatisfaction with the Iraq war and rising gasoline prices. He has struggled to demonstrate the same take-charge leadership he displayed after the Sept. 11 terror attacks four years ago.

Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish near New Orleans, was happy with Bush's speech. "Mainly he gave hope, and right now in this area people need hope more than anything," he told CBS television's "The Early Show."

In his speech, the president called for a congressional investigation besides the administration's self-examination. But Democrats want an independent probe similar to the one conducted by the Sept. 11 Commission instead of reviews that will be led by the Republican-controlled Congress and White House.

The president said the federal government will pay most of the costs of rebuilding the Gulf Coast, including New Orleans.

"There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again," Bush said.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, speaking after the president's address, acknowledged that the recovery programs would add to the U.S. debt. Republican leaders are open to suggestions from lawmakers to cut government spending elsewhere, but the task is urgent, he said.

"For every dollar we spend on this means a dollar that's going to take a little bit longer to balance the budget," Hastert said.

Congress already has approved $62 billion (euro50.64 billion) for the disaster, but that is expected to run out next month.

(c) 2005 Associated Press