WASHINGTON — President Bush pledged Wednesday to do "all in our power" to save lives and provide sustenance to uncounted victims of Hurricane Katrina but cautioned that recovery of the Gulf Coast will take years.
"We're dealing with one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history," he said at the White House after breaking off his Texas vacation and viewing the devastation from Air Force One.
With a vast federal relief effort grinding into operation — from food and shelter to spraying for disease-carrying mosquitoes — Bush cautioned that the effects of the storm will be felt far beyond Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
He said he had ordered steps to cushion the impact on the storm on the nation's oil industry at a time when consumers are paying $3 a gallon for gasoline in some regions. "This will help take some pressure off of gas price, but our citizens must understand this storm has disrupted the capacity to make gasoline and distribute gasoline," he said.
Flanked by senior members of his administration, Bush recited some of the actions already taken to help victims of the storm — more than 50 disaster medical assistance teams and more than 25 urban search and rescue teams, both from the Federal Emergency Management Administration.
He said the Transportation Department has provided trucks to convey 5.4 million ready-to-eat meals, 13.4 million liters of water, 10,400 tarps, 3.4 million pounds of ice, 144 generators, 20 containers of prepositioned disaster supplies, 135,000 blankets and 11,000 cots.
"And we're just starting," he added.
While Bush offered no immediate estimate for the cost of the federal effort, administration spokesman Dana Perino said a funding request would be prepared quickly. Congressional leaders in both parties said they were eager to respond to a disaster whose full scope was still unclear.
Standing in the Rose Garden, Bush said, "This recovery will take a long time. This recovery will take years."
He said buses were on the way to help take thousands of storm survivors from the overwhelmed Superdome in New Orleans to the Astrodome in Houston.
Bush said the Pentagon, as well, was contributing to the rescue and relief operations, and the administration would make road and bridge repair a priority.
Bush also said he had instructed Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman to work with refineries to "alleviate any shortage through loans."
In addition to the government's efforts, Bush encouraged private cash donations to recovery efforts.
While Bush did not minimize the destruction left by the storm, he expressed optimism in words directed at the victims of the storm who have lost their homes, possessions and employment.
"I'm confident that with time you'll get your life back in order, new communities will flourish, the great city of New Orleans will get back on its feet and America will be a stronger place for it," he said.
"The country stands with you. We'll do all in our power to help you," he said.
Bush stepped to the microphones to put a personal imprint on efforts his administration is making to cope with the disaster in the Gulf Coast. He also planned a rare live one-on-one television interview today with ABC's Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America."
"Truckloads of water, ice, meals, medical supplies, generators, tents and tarpaulins" are loaded aboard 1,700 trailer trucks in an initial emergency response, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said earlier at a news conference.
He pledged a "full range of federal resources" — a list that ran from bridge inspection and repair to restoration of communications networks to mosquito abatement in a region with vast stretches underwater.
At the same time, officials warned of continuing hardships across an area laid waste by the powerful storm.
Michael Leavitt, secretary of Health and Human Services, announced that he had declared a public health emergency in the area stretching from Louisiana to Florida. "We are gravely concerned about the potential for cholera, typhoid and dehydrating diseases that could come as a result of the stagnant water and the conditions," he said.
Epidemic cholera and typhoid are not considered likely threats because they have become extremely rare in the U.S. population, said Richard Garfield, a Columbia University professor of international clinical nursing who helped coordinate medical care in Indonesia following last year's tsunami.
An HHS spokeswoman, Christina Pearson, said Leavitt mentioned the two diseases "to make a broader point" about illnesses that could be spread in conditions like those on the Gulf Coast.
Chertoff and Leavitt spoke at a news conference attended by an unusual array of department and agency heads, each of whom came equipped with a list of actions already taken by the administration.
In addition to steps designed to alleviate the suffering of victims, the administration moved to cushion the impact the storm might have on the nation's oil supply.
Bush signed off on a plan to release oil from emergency stockpiles, a decision intended to offset the loss of production from Gulf Coast refiners.
At the same time, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson announced a temporary nationwide waiver of certain pollution standards covering gasoline and diesel fuels.
Johnson had issued the waiver for the four storm-damaged Gulf states on Tuesday but said the broader move was necessary "to ensure that fuel is available throughout the country, to address public health issues and emergency vehicle supply needs."
Additionally, Bodman said the Transportation Department had waived rules governing trucker hours, a step he said would increase the supply of gasoline.