Bush, Blanco Reveal Strained Relationship


By JENNIFER LOVEN, Associated Press Writer 1 hour, 28 minutes ago

BATON ROUGE, La. - Like estranged in-laws at a holiday gathering, President Bush and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco kept their distance as both toured a relief center for storm victims Monday. At their next stop, the Republican president kissed the Democratic governor on the cheek, but it wasn't clear whether they had made up.

State and federal officials are all facing public criticism for a slow response to the crisis. Behind the scenes, each suggests the other is to blame.

In front of the cameras during Bush's visit to the Gulf Coast states on Monday, the president and Blanco said little to each other, focusing instead on thanking relief workers.

"I know I don't need to make any other introduction other than `Mr. President,'" Blanco said tersely, turning the microphone over to Bush after praising emergency management officials during a stop with Bush at an emergency operations center.

"This is one of these disasters that will test our soul and test our spirit, but we're going to show the world once again that not only can we survive but we will be stronger and better for it," Bush said after taking the microphone.

Bush echoed Blanco's praise for rescue workers. "I hope that makes you feel good to know you have saved lives," Bush said, promising state, local and federal officials that he would fix anything that isn't going right. "This is just the beginning of a huge effort," he said.

The president, looking choked up as he finished his brief remarks, nodded at Blanco and kissed her on the cheek. She nodded back and both left the podium, headed for separate spots in the crowd.

Blanco has refused to sign over control of the National Guard to the federal government and has turned to a Clinton administration official, former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief James Lee Witt, to help run relief efforts.

Blanco was not told when Bush would visit the state, nor was she immediately invited to meet him or travel with him. Blanco's office didn't know Bush was coming until told by reporters. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said the White House reached out to Blanco's office on Sunday, but didn't hear back. White House staff in Louisiana spoke with Blanco early Monday, he said.

Making his third visit to the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged states, Bush stopped first at the Bethany World Prayer Center, a huge hall half covered with pallets and half filled with dining tables. Blanco visited at the same time, but she and Bush kept apart as they walked around talking to people.

During his stop at Bethany, several people ran up to meet Bush and get autographs as he and first lady Laura Bush wandered around the room. But just as many hung back and looked on.

"I need answers," said Mildred Brown, who has been there since Tuesday with her husband, mother-in-law and cousin. "I'm not interested in handshaking. I'm not interested in photo ops. This is going to take a lot of money."

Bush hasn't gone a day without a public event devoted to the storm and its aftermath. But none of those trips so far — nor appearances by several Cabinet members in the region — has quieted complaints that Washington's response to the disaster has been sluggish. Congress already plans hearings on the response.

Bush's trip Monday was his third inspection tour, the second by ground. Last week, he had his pilot lower Air Force One, the presidential jet, to an altitude of about 2,500 feet as he flew over the area. Last Friday, he walked a neighborhood in Biloxi on Mississippi's coast and stopped at the airport and a breached levee in New Orleans.

By contrast, Baton Rouge, about 80 miles northwest of New Orleans, largely escaped damage. Its population, however, has swelled dramatically with displaced people and is experiencing clogged roads and supply shortages.

On Monday afternoon, Bush headed to Poplarville, Miss., to meet with Republican Gov. Haley Barbour and other state and local officials at the Pearl River Community College. The city is about 45 miles inland, but the area was in the path of Katrina's eye and the town and surrounding rural areas suffered enormous devastation.

Bush said he understood his optimism about the region's recovery is hard for others to share: "It's easy for me to say that I can see a better tomorrow because I haven't been living through what you are living, but I do," he said.

On Bush's last stop of the day, he walked a middle-class Poplarville street of tidy ranch homes and commiserated with residents. Unlike many other places in the hurricane zone, the homes were intact, with downed trees and power lines the only evidence of the storm.

Bush has come under fire for waiting two days after Katrina hit — and a day after levee breaks drowned New Orleans and turned it into a place of lawless misery — to return to Washington from his August break in Texas to oversee the federal response.

It took several days for food and water to reach the tens of thousands of desperate New Orleans residents who took shelter in the increasingly squalid and deadly Superdome and city convention center. Outlying areas suffered some of the same problems.

Officials are reporting progress and new worries.

Russ Knocke, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman, said at least 22,800 people have been rescued — more than four times the number the Coast Guard usually saves in a year.

At least 155,000 people have been evacuated from the stricken areas, most of them now housed in some 560 shelters, he said. More than 60,000 civilian and military personnel are assisting.

Hundreds of federal health officers and nearly 100 tons of medical supplies were sent to try to head off disease, feared because of hot weather, mosquitos and standing water holding human waste, corpses and other contaminants.

In Houston, former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton announced a nationwide fundraising campaign to help hurricane victims.