(NEW ORLEANS) -- President Bush denied Monday there was any racial component to people being left behind after Hurricane Katrina, despite suggestions from some critics that the response would have been quicker if so many of the victims hadn't been poor and black.
"The storm didn't discriminate and neither will the recovery effort," Bush said. "The rescue efforts were comprehensive. The recovery will be comprehensive."
Bush made the remarks to reporters beneath a highway overpass at the end of a tour that took him through several flooded New Orleans neighborhoods. Occasionally, Bush had to duck to avoid low-hanging electrical wires and branches.
It was Bush's first exposure to the on-the-ground leadership of his new hurricane relief chief. The federal response to the disaster has been roundly criticized as sluggish and inept.
In a sign that Bush is growing weary of the accusations, he testily replied to a reporter who asked whether he felt let down by federal officials on the ground.
"Look, there will be plenty of time to play the blame game," he said. "That's what you're trying to do. You're trying to say somebody is at fault. And, look, I want to know. I want to know exactly what went on and how it went on, and we'll continually assess inside my administration."
He also sharply rejected suggestions that the nation's military was stretched too thinly with the war in Iraq to deal with the Gulf Coast 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."
Bush said Congress should consider whether the federal government should have more authority to step into disaster areas without a request from the states. He said lawmakers should examine what happened and make recommendations for change so the government can prepare for future disasters, including the possibility of a biological attack.
"We need to make sure that this country is knitted up as well as it can be in order to deal with significant problems and disasters," Bush said. "Meantime, we've got to keep moving forward. And I know there has been a lot of second-guessing. I can assure you I'm not interested in that. What I'm interested in is solving problems. And there'll be time to take a step back and to take a sober look at what went right, what didn't go right."
Bush also clarified his now-criticized remark that no one had anticipated the levees being breached. He said he was referring to that "sense of relaxation in a critical moment" when many people initially thought the storm had not inflicted heavy damage on the city.
Bush, on a two-day visit to hurricane-affected areas, started the day with a briefing on the federal response effort aboard the 844-foot USS Iwo Jima, a command center for military operations. The slideshow presentation, which covered the latest relief and recovery efforts in three states, was conducted in the ship's ward room by Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, who replaced embattled FEMA Director Michael Brown as federal hurricane commander last Friday.
Bush was seated between New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco -- both of whom have been critical of the federal response in Hurricane Katrina's wake.
Bush then toured the flooded city in a convoy of military trucks. Later, he was to tour hard-hit surrounding parishes by helicopter, touching down to meet with local leaders, and then was traveling to Gulfport, Miss.
It was Bush's first up-close look in the two weeks since Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast and drowned this storied city. He had visited on ground last week in Mississippi and at the New Orleans airport and had made two previous airborne inspection tours. Although he stopped at the New Orleans airport and went to the site of one of the breached levees on the edge of the city, Bush had stayed far from the epicenter of the city's suffering.
The president spent Sunday night aboard the Iwo Jima, a military amphibious assault ship docked in the Mississippi River just behind the city's convention center -- now eerily empty but still strewn with piles of trash _ that was the scene of so much misery in the days after the storm.
The trip came as the White House is eager to show the president displaying hands-on, empathetic leadership in the storm effort. More than half of respondents in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll last week said he is at fault for the slow response.
The city's devastation is immense, but the situation has improved markedly in the last week. Law and order has been restored to New Orleans and looting curtailed; the Superdome and city convention center are empty; the water level is going down as workers begin to drain the city; and some power is being restored.
Democrats have not been shy about seizing on the discontent with Bush's performance.
"Sadly, the federal government's lack of preparation followed by its inept response had deadly consequences for far too many Americans in Katrina's path," party Chairman Howard Dean said.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said it is unfortunate that the White House has undertaken a "full-court press" to deflect blame for the poor early response to the storm away from the Bush administration and onto state and local officials.