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Bush gets ground tour of Katrina damage

FEMA director Michael Brown resigns amid criticism



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New Orleans (Louisiana)
Hurricane Katrina
Disaster Relief
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

(CNN) -- President Bush got a firsthand look Monday at two of the areas most damaged by Hurricane Katrina, while the man initially in charge of the federal government's response to the disaster resigned.

Michael Brown, under fire over his qualifications and for what critics call a bungled response to Katrina, announced his resignation in Washington as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. (Full story)

"The president appreciates Mike Brown's service," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan, citing Brown's work leading recovery efforts last year after four hurricanes hit Florida. "He was widely praised for FEMA's response and recovery efforts."

Asked whether the president had asked for Brown's resignation, McClellan said, "This was Mike Brown's decision, and he respects that decision."

Bush later named David Paulison, a 30-year veteran of fire and rescue work, to be acting FEMA director.

Brown's resignation came three days after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff recalled him to Washington and replaced him as the point main for the relief efforts.

"As I told the president, it is important that I leave now to avoid further distraction from the ongoing mission of FEMA," Brown said in a news release.

Bush also has been criticized for his leadership in the federal response. According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday, a majority of those interviewed -- 54 percent -- said they disapproved of the president's handling of the crisis. (Full story)

The president started his day with a tour of New Orleans, his first up-close visit to the Louisiana city whose damage is largely from floodwaters. He finished with a visit to Gulfport, Mississippi, before flying back to Washington.

He arrived in New Orleans on Sunday and spent the night aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima, which is docked along the riverfront and serves as a command center.

Two weeks after Katrina slammed into the central Gulf Coast and water filled the city from breaches in the levees that were supposed to protect it, 40 percent of New Orleans is still underwater.

In areas where the water has been removed by 41 operational pumps, thick sludge remains.

Bush traveled in a convoy of four military trucks through neighborhoods plagued by stench, mud and high water. He visited areas clear of water as well. (Watch video on Bush's return to the coast -- 1:37)

Some homes along Bush's route were marked "0 D 0 A," meaning searchers had found no people inside dead or alive.

A reporter asked Bush about criticism that a racial component was behind the government's slow response to people left without help after Katrina hit.

"The storm didn't discriminate, and neither will the recovery effort," Bush said. "When those Coast Guard choppers -- many of whom were first on the scene -- were pulling people off roofs, they didn't check the color of a person's skin, they wanted to save lives.

"I can assure people ... that this recovery is going to be comprehensive. The rescue efforts were comprehensive, and the recovery will be comprehensive."

White and black Americans view the federal response in starkly different ways, with more blacks viewing race as a factor, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday. (Full story)

The poll found that six in 10 blacks interviewed said the federal government was slow in rescuing those stranded in New Orleans because many of the people were black. But only about one in eight white respondents shared that view.

Bush also rejected suggestions that the nation's military was stretched too thin with the Iraq war to deal with the hurricane devastation.

"We've got plenty of troops to do both," the president said. "It is preposterous to claim that the engagement in Iraq meant there weren't enough troops here, just pure and simple."

Vice Adm. Thad Allen, the Coast Guard's chief of staff, who replaced Brown as chief of FEMA's mission in the region last week, briefed Bush aboard the Iwo Jima.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathy Blanco -- who have been critical of the federal response after the storm -- also met with Bush, as did Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who is leading the military's task force.

Officials said they believe thousands of residents have ignored mandatory evacuation orders. (Watch video on clearing the city-size cauldron of debris, sewage and mud -- 1:39)

The death toll in New Orleans from the storm remains incomplete, but Honore said it may be lower than the mayor's earlier estimate of 10,000.

Louisiana officials said Monday that at least 279 people have been killed by the effects of Katrina.

The number includes drowning victims as well as other people who died from conditions caused by the storm, such as patients on life support who died when the power was lost, according to a release from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

Paulison has been with FEMA since 2002. His most recent job was director of the Preparedness Division of the Emergency Preparedness & Response Directorate. Before joining FEMA, he was chief of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department in Florida.

EPA: Floodwaters contain lead

Final tests show that floodwaters in New Orleans contain high levels of lead and E. coli bacteria, the Environmental Protection Agency said Monday.

The agency issued an advisory last week about the water based on initial test results, EPA press secretary Eryn Witcher said. The samples were taken from six locations in the city on September 3.

The latest EPA advisory warned against direct contact or ingesting the water.

"Also, people can become ill if they have an open cut, wound or abrasion that comes into contact with water contaminated with certain organisms," the agency said.

"One may experience fever, redness and swelling at the site of the infection and should see a doctor right away if possible."

Witcher said the level of lead would cause "concern if a child ingests large amounts of the floodwater."

Other developments

  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said its initial surveys had determined $94 million in damage to its facilities in 16 national wildlife refuges on the Gulf Coast.
  • The director of aviation for the agency that operates Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport said Monday the facility will begin to operate a limited number of scheduled passenger and cargo flights Tuesday. Of the airport's four concourses, two are available for passenger flights, one is damaged and the other is still serving as a makeshift hospital, said Roy Williams of the New Orleans Aviation Board.
  • CNN's John King and Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report.

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