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U.S.: Congress Agrees To Bipartisan Katrina Inquiry

The leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have agreed to set up a joint congressional committee to investigate the response at all levels to Hurricane Katrina. Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton has suggested the inquiry operate along the lines of the bipartisan commission that examined the 11 September 2001 attacks. U.S. President George W. Bush had earlier proposed that he lead his own review, an idea that was mocked by critics, who say he should take much of the blame for the post-Katrina chaos. According to poll results published yesterday, 42 percent of Americans rate Bush's handling of the crisis as "bad" or "terrible." The president, meanwhile, is seeking $50 billion in emergency aid from Congress.

Prague, 8 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- As the waters in New Orleans begin to fall, the political mercury in Washington has begun to rise.

The temporary truce that followed the shocking aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is over and President George W Bush is back in the firing line -- accused by his critics of incompetence, insensitivity, and complacency.

Senator Hillary Clinton fired off one of the first salvoes: “When the president signed the emergency declaration on 27 August, which was the Saturday before Katrina hit, the federal government said it would take the lead in coordinating a response to this catastrophe and for whatever combination of reasons, it just didn't work.”

And she ridiculed Bush's idea that he should lead the review of what went wrong. “I don't think the government can investigate itself," she said. "That is why I've called for an independent investigation.”

But that was mild in comparison with the scathing attack on the president launched by Senate Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. She is demanding the immediate dismissal of Michael Brown, the man Bush appointed to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). His previous experience was in organizing horse shows. Pelosi says Bush has to accept responsibility.

“[Bush] is the one whose judgment is on the line," she said. "He is the one who chose Michael Brown to head FEMA, who has no credentials for the job. And you know what, when I said to the president that he should fire Michael Brown, he said, 'Why would I do that?' I said because of what went wrong and all that didn't go right last week. He said, 'What didn't go right?' Oblivious, in denial, dangerous.”

But Democrats are not alone in questioning the administration's commitment to getting at the truth of what went wrong after Katrina struck. “The reaction of the Bush administration in the past to failures in policy has been to close ranks and even give medals to people who clearly did not perform," Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, told RFE/RL. "There's nothing this administration hates more than to admit errors on its own part. So there's going to be a strong inclination not to fire anybody, not to accept blame, and of course we're already seeing fingers pointing at Kathleen Blanco, the governor of Louisiana, and the mayor of New Orleans.”

As the politicians sharpen their knives, in New Orleans the police and soldiers are going from street to street, door to door to enforce the mayor's order for a complete evacuation. It's thought that fewer than 10,000 people are left in the city. And the initial fears of disease are easing -- health officials say bacteria levels in the water are 10 times higher than acceptable safety levels, but that there is little risk of diseases like cholera and typhoid.

The real damage could be social and economic -- it's estimated that the destruction in the Gulf Coast states will cost the region 400,000 jobs in the next few months.

Financial experts say Katrina will set back insurers as much as $35 billion. But some, like analyst Adam Klauber of Cochran Caronia Securities, believe recovery may be quicker than many think. "The industry is actually in a great position to absorb this storm and really go on without missing a beat," Klauber said. "The industry is flush with capital after several years of strong price increases."

Business will bounce back, he said, once reconstruction begins. In the meantime, though, the southern states of Louisiana, Mississipi, and Alabama have to cope with storm damages thought to top $100 billion.

Bush has appealed to Congress for more than $50 billion in emergency aid to help get the region back on its feet.