President Bush today said he understood the frustration of Hurricane Katrina's victims, thousands of whom are still waiting for food, water and other aid, and promised that relief efforts were ramping up.
"I fully understand people wanting things to have happened yesterday," Bush told ABC's "Good Morning America" this morning in an exclusive White House interview. "I understand the anxiety of people on the ground. … So there is frustration. But I want people to know there's a lot of help coming."
Noting that communities had been "obliterated" by Hurricane Katrina, Bush said the image that sticks in his mind is of survivors sitting on rooftops, waving flags, in the hope of rescue. He said the government's first priority is to save lives.
"We've gotta get a handle on this from the human dimension, first and foremost," Bush said. He said the government does not yet know exactly how many people are dead or missing as a result of the huge storm.
"It's obviously going to be a lot," he said.
Bush returned to the White House on Wednesday, two days early from a monthlong Texas vacation, to oversee relief efforts. Bush dismissed criticism that he didn't return sooner as political sniping.
"I hope people don't play politics at this time of a natural disaster the likes of which this country has never seen," he said.
On the return flight to the White House, Bush viewed the damage as Air Force One descended to below 3,000 feet over the hardest-hit areas, including New Orleans.
"The devastation I saw was very emotional. It is so devastating it is hard to describe it," Bush said, adding that he observed flooded neighborhoods in New Orleans and "entire communities obliterated in Mississippi."
Asked to compare what he saw to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bush said New Orleans was more physically devastated than New York.
"Nine-eleven was a manmade attack, this was a natural disaster," he said.
But the president was optimistic that The Big Easy will recover.
"There's no doubt in my mind that New Orleans will rise again as a great city," he said. He said he would visit New Orleans as soon as his arrival would not "take a lot of resources away from the ground."
So far, the federal government has dispatched assistance to the Gulf Coast region, including 5.4 million precooked meals, 13.4 million liters of water, more than 1,000 search and rescue personnel, and the floating hospital ship USNS Comfort.
Bush said there are more than 22,000 National Guard troops on the Gulf Coast, after an additional 10,000 arrived Wednesday in what may be the nation's largest military response to a natural disaster.
As gas prices rose and some areas faced shortages, the Bush administration has authorized a release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve -- 700 million barrels of crude oil stored in underground salt caverns in Texas and Louisiana. The last time this reserve was tapped was in September 2004 during disruptions caused by Hurricane Ivan.
In addition to food, water, shelter and other aid, Bush said the federal government would, if asked, send troops to stop the rampant looting in New Orleans.
"I think there ought to be zero tolerance of people breaking the law," Bush said, 'Whether it's looting or price-gouging or insurance fraud."