WASHINGTON, Feb. 28, 2006 — -- In an exclusive interview with ABC News' Elizabeth Vargas, President Bush offered his views on a range of topics, including the response to Hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq, U.S. port security and the future of his presidency. What follows is a transcript of the interview.
ELIZABETH VARGAS: Let's start with Katrina, because today is the six-month anniversary of the hurricane hitting, and you know there have been a series of government reports evaluating the government response to that disaster. A congressional report assessed the U.S. reaction as "woefully unprepared" not only for a natural disaster now but for a terrorist attack, the state of readiness right now of the United States.
Setting aside future improvements that you plan, do you agree today with that assessment, that the United States is "woefully unprepared" for another natural disaster or attack?
PRESIDENT BUSH: I agree that we didn't do as good a job as we could have done on Katrina. However, I would remind people that there was a hurricane right after Katrina that hit Louisiana and Texas, and the response was much better coordinated, and the situational awareness on the ground was much improved. And so while I can't predict 100 percent success on a catastrophic -- major catastrophic event, I can say that lessons learned from Katrina were being implemented quickly. And the case I make is that hurricane that hit down there in Texas is one where the response was much better.
Listen, here's the problem that happened in Katrina. There was no situational awareness, and that means that we weren't getting good, solid information from people who were on the ground, and we need to do a better job. One reason we weren't is because communications systems got wiped out, and in many cases we were relying upon the media, who happened to have better situational awareness than the government. And when you have the media [with] better situational awareness than the government, the American people are saying, "Wait a minute. What is happening? How come the federal Government and state government and local governments couldn't do a better job of providing information necessarily so that people could react better?"
VARGAS: So you don't agree with that report that calls the U.S. "woefully unprepared?"
BUSH: I think the U.S. is better prepared than woefully unprepared. There's no question we've got more work to do, and our report on Katrina outlined the work that needs to be done.
I thought, for example, the reaction to the 9/11 attack was a remarkable reaction, positively. When the terrorists attacked and destroyed two buildings, there were rescue teams rushing in to save lives. There was a response by the city that was a coordinated response. Katrina was one that we could have done a much better job [on], and we're learning the lessons from Katrina. But the country has got to constantly be evaluating our capabilities and preparing for the worst.
VARGAS: When you look back on those days immediately following when Katrina struck, what moment do you think was the moment that you realized that the government was failing, especially the people of New Orleans?
BUSH: When I saw TV reporters interviewing people who were screaming for help. It looked -- the scenes looked chaotic and desperate. And I realized that our government was -- could have done a better job of comforting people.
A lot went right, by the way. I don't want to denigrate the efforts of people that really worked hard. Our Coast Guard people were flying incredibly dangerous missions to rescue I think over 30,000 people from the roofs of their homes.
There was, you know, an amazing response from the citizenry who welcomed people who evacuated. And the state and the city evacuated a lot of people, and that caused there to be less loss of life.
But the chaotic scenes were very troubling. It just -- it was very unsettling for me to realize our fellow citizens were in near panic wondering where the help was.
VARGAS: One more thing that the report said when they talked about how the government -- the reaction by the government broke down. They were talking in particular about the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA. The House report called the federal response to Katrina "a failure of leadership." It describes FEMA as "undertrained, understaffed, and overwhelmed" and lay the blame for that with the Department of Homeland Security for stripping down FEMA. Do you think you're being well served by Secretary Chertoff?
BUSH: I do. I think he's doing a fine job. I also know he's willing to accept criticism and respond. That's the important thing. You know, Katrina has left a legacy, and the question is will we be willing to learn from the lessons. And that's exactly what you're beginning to see happening. We ordered a report right after Katrina hit. I said let us take a look at how better to prepare for the next disaster. And the government has been, one, very quick to analyze and, two, has now got a whole list of suggestions on which to implement in order so that we can do a better job and future presidents can learn from the lessons of Katrina.
VARGAS: But when these reports place so much responsibility at Mr. Chertoff's feet, if he were to offer his resignation to you, would you accept it?
BUSH: I don't think he's going to. Washington is a town full of a lot of criticism, and some of it is merited and some of it, you know, is not. But in this case, we take the criticism seriously and recognize that we could have done a better job and are responding accordingly.
VARGAS: Let's move to Iraq. This has been a rough few days in Iraq since the bombing of the mosque in Samarra. There's been a lot of sectarian violence. We heard fresh reports of violence again today and reports from Baghdad that the violence in these past three days has been the worst since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. There was a lot of criticism from both the Shiites and the Sunnis of the U.S. military for standing back and not doing enough to stop the violence.