WASHINGTON, AP -President Bush said he was concerned that Tropical Storm Rita could hit the already devastated Gulf Coast as he prepared for a fifth trip to the region to survey hurricane recovery efforts.
A day after helping pressure New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to stop the reopening of the city, Bush on Tuesday planned to get an on-the-ground briefing about cleanup efforts there.
He was beginning the tour in Gulfport, Miss., holding a meeting with leaders from local businesses and government.
Crews were busy clearing debris and pumping the water out of New Orleans while anxiously watching the path of the tropical storm headed toward the Atlantic coast of Florida early Tuesday. Forecasters warned that Rita could enter the Gulf of Mexico and possibly hit some of the same areas wiped out by Hurricane Katrina three weeks ago.
"There is deep concern about this storm causing more flooding in New Orleans," Bush said Monday after meeting with his homeland security council at the White House. "If it were to rain a lot, there is concern from the Army Corps of Engineers that the levees might break."
Bush suggested it was not the right time for residents to return to New Orleans, even though they were beginning to come home at the mayor”s invitation. Six hours later, Nagin reversed course and said he was suspending his plan to bring as much as a third of the city”s population back over the next week.
The shift in policy was a much-needed show of leadership for the president, who hasn”t had many public victories in the wake of Katrina.
In his last trip to the region Thursday, Bush tried to repair the political damage with a speech in New Orleans” famed French Quarter. This week he continues his effort with more trips to the hurricane zone.
Bush said local officials in the hurricane-damaged area have told him repeatedly that they were frustrated by bureaucratic hurdles that were slowing the effort to get rid of enormous amounts of debris left by the storm. He said he was working to cut through the red tape.
"There are piles and piles of homes and buildings just in rubble," Bush said. "And in order to help this region get rebuilt, first things first, and that”s to get rid of the debris."
After his stop in Mississippi, he was traveling to New Orleans for the briefing and to visit a business recovering from the storm. The White House wouldn”t disclose which business ahead of time.
Bush planned to return Friday and Saturday to visit Alabama, Texas and Arkansas — neighboring states that have taken in large numbers of Katrina evacuees.
Being away from Washington on Saturday will keep Bush far from an anti-war march that organizers hope will attract 100,000 people. The demonstration is expected to include Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq who set up camp outside Bush”s Texas ranch in August and drew thousands of fellow protesters. She has been on a 25-state bus tour scheduled to end at the Washington march and concert featuring folk singer Joan Baez.
On another front, 21 House Republicans sent a letter demanding that Bush find spending cuts in federal programs to offset the massive cost of rebuilding the Gulf Coast. Conservatives, worried that the deficit will balloon, have been alarmed at the pace of spending with no talk of how to pay for it.
Sen. John McCain (news, bio, voting record), R-Ariz., suggested dropping the Medicare prescription drug plan, which he has long opposed. "It was supposed to cost $400 billion," he told CBS Evening News. "It”s now up to $700 billion. We ought to cancel it, go back to square one."
Bush last week ruled out raising taxes to pay Katrina expenses and said other government spending must be cut. His aides have said, though, that no such cuts have yet been identified and that the hurricane relief effort will temporarily swell the deficit.