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Senators call for greater fed response

FEMA defends itself against growing criticism

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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- Two Democratic U.S. senators, echoing calls for a better national response to Hurricane Katrina, on Saturday presented President Bush with a list of actions they said he must take immediately.

"Only the federal government can adequately address the basic needs of our fellow Americans suffering from this disaster and they deserve a better response from their government," Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada wrote.

"We are concerned about the serious problems and chaos that have marked the federal government's initial response to date. We believe it is essential that you fully use the significant legal authority you possess under current law to better respond to the absolutely critical needs of victims who are undergoing unspeakable hardships," they wrote.

Later Saturday, Landrieu called work to repair a levee a presidential photo op and pointed to "abject failures" of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is "now a shell of what it once was."

FEMA "continues to be overwhelmed by the task at hand," she said.

The letter to the president called on the president to use his authority to "provide cash benefits to individuals who have been stranded without financial resources" -- something the senators said is allowed under the Stafford Disaster Assistance and Emergency Relief Act.

"Yet we have heard reports that some victims who have contacted the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been told that FEMA is not accepting applications for financial assistance."

FEMA Deputy Director Patrick Rhode said it is important to remember that his agency works in partnership with state and local officials.

He compared FEMA's mobilization effort to "the likes of which this country has perhaps never seen before applied to a domestic incident."

"We're not only talking about efforts to try to make sure we're evacuating as many people as possible, but we are also talking about one of the largest urban search and rescue efforts that this country has ever put forth," Rhode said.

In their letter, the senators also said Bush should exercise his authority in an emergency to use federal facilities "to provide housing and food for those in need. We urge you to use your existing authority to ensure that all victims have at least enough food to survive, and to immediately identify military bases and other federal facilities that can house these victims on a temporary basis."

They said current law also lets the president provide "transportation assistance in a disaster. Yet many of those displaced from New Orleans and other Gulf Coast regions have no ability to relocate to other areas where they may have family and friends available. Providing such transportation assistance also should be a priority."

The two senators thanked Bush for his "efforts since the hurricane hit" and expressed "strong interest in working cooperatively" to address the widespread humanitarian crisis.

Landrieu: No responses

In a statement released later in the day, Landrieu said she still had not heard from the president about her request Friday to appoint within 24 hours a Cabinet-level official to oversee Hurricane Katrina relief and recovery efforts.

Landrieu, in her criticism of FEMA, said the agency did not respond to an offer from the U.S. Forest Service to use its water-tanker aircraft to douse a fire on the New Orleans' riverfront.

She also said FEMA "dragged its feet" on an offer from Amtrak to use its trains to evacuate residents.

"But perhaps the greatest disappointment stands at the breached 17th Street levee," Landrieu said.

During an aerial tour of the breached levee with Bush, Landrieu said she saw what she believed was "a real and significant effort to get a handle on a major cause of this catastrophe."

Less than a day later, she said work had stopped.

"It became apparent that yesterday we witnessed a hastily prepared stage set for a Presidential photo opportunity; and the desperately needed resources we saw were this morning reduced to a single, lonely piece of equipment," she said.

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