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Bush takes responsibility for slow federal response

President says finding what went wrong is imperative

President Bush, with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, speaks to the media during a news conference Tuesday at the White House.
President Bush, with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, speaks to the media during a news conference Tuesday at the White House.
Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — President Bush, fighting to regain his political footing, set the stage for a nationwide address on Hurricane Katrina Thursday night by accepting "responsibility" for delayed federal rescue and relief efforts.

Bush, who may name a czar to chart the multibillion-dollar Gulf Coast recovery, said the aftermath of the hurricane "exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government."

"To the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility," Bush said.

The president emphasized it was "in our national interest" to ferret out what went wrong to prepare the nation to deal more effectively with "a severe attack or another severe storm."

Bush also praised the "heroic" efforts of Coast Guard personnel and state and local first responders to rescue victims of the storm.

Bush spoke on Tuesday at a joint White House news conference with visiting Iraqi President Jalal Talabani as the Katrina casualty toll in Louisiana rose to 423.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who has joined scores of other politicians from the region in criticizing the federal response, expressed appreciation for Bush's concession.

"The president's comments today will do more to move our country forward with this tragedy than anything that has been said by any leader in the past two weeks," she said. "Accountability at every level is critical, and leadership begins at the top."

The president plans to address the nation at 7 p.m. MDT Thursday from Louisiana, on what will be his fourth visit to the Gulf Coast since the hurricane decimated the region Aug. 29.

On Friday, which he has designated a national day of prayer and remembrance, he is planning to speak at the Washington National Cathedral in the morning, and T.D. Jakes, a conservative African-American television evangelist, is scheduled to deliver the sermon with some evacuees from New Orleans in attendance.

In other developments:

Louisiana Attorney General Charles C. Foti Jr. announced the owners of St. Rita's Nursing Home in St. Bernard Parish have been charged with negligent homicide in the deaths of 34 elderly residents.

"This is a horrific tragedy," Foti said. "I want to know why those people were trapped and were not evacuated."

Salvador A. Mangano and his wife, Mable, surrendered and were jailed on 34 counts of negligent homicide. They posted bond of $50,000 each later Tuesday. Each count carries up to five years in prison.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said officials are weighing a variety of options for managing long-term Gulf Coast recovery, including appointment of a czar to coordinate the vast program of reconstruction.

Speculation centered on Vice President Dick Cheney, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Secretary of State Colin Powell or former Army Gen. Tommy Franks.

Chertoff also said teams of federal auditors will scrutinize billions of dollars worth of government contracts. The Democratic National Committee accused the administration on Tuesday of "giving no-bid contracts to Bush's political cronies."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said some military aircraft and other equipment may be able to move out of the Gulf Coast soon. "We've got to the point where most if not all of the search and rescue is completed," Rumsfeld said. He said nothing will be moved out of the area without the authorization of governors, the military leaders there and the president.

A Senate committee headed by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, was scheduled to hold today the first of what will likely be many congressional hearings on the Katrina response.

Meanwhile, Louisiana political leaders in Washington said they don't trust FEMA, even under new leadership, to direct the immense reconstruction effort in their state and adjoining areas.

Landrieu joined Sen. David Vitter, R-La., on the Senate floor Tuesday in announcing plans by the state's congressional delegation to introduce a bill this week to set up an independent reconstruction commission.

"We need a Katrina reconstruction commission headed by a no-nonsense, nonpolitical, businessman manager so that we all have something lasting to show for this spending," Vitter said.

Contributing: Elisabeth Bumiller and Richard W. Stevenson, New York Times News Service; Tom Raum and Doug Simpson, Associated Press; James Rosen, McClatchy Newspapers