Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, on Sunday admitted that government mistakes in handling the aftermath of hurricane Katrina would have to be investigated, but he insisted recriminations should wait until the humanitarian crisis was under control.
“Some things worked very well and others did not work well,” he said in an interview on NBC news. But he said that focusing on the mistakes would be a distraction from rescue efforts if America started the finger-pointing too soon. “There will be plenty of time for after-action analysis,” he said.
As rescue operations continued on Sunday, the last people were removed from the Superdome football stadium in downtown New Orleans and the nearby convention centre, where tens of thousands had sought refuge.
But thousands more are thought to remain trapped in their homes seven days after the hurricane hit and rescuers are conducting a street by street search in order to evacuate survivors. Reports suggested that many survivors remained reluctant to leave their homes and were having to be removed by force.
“We're going to have to check every single place to find people who may be alive and in need of assistance,” said Mr Chertoff. “This is not going to happen overnight.”
Criticisms of the administration's response to the hurricane have intensified in recent days, with some saying that the sluggish relief effort has cost lives. But administration officials argue that the scale of the catastrophe simply could not have been foreseen.
“Let's be honest,” Mr Chertoff said on CNN. “This stressed the system beyond any prior experience anybody has had in this country.”
Late Friday the president signed a $10.5bn relief funding bill for victims of the hurricane. And over the weekend he called up 7,000 regular army troops, bringing the total in the region to around 54,000. Refugees continued to be moved to sports stadiums and other improvised shelters in Texas and northern Louisiana.
Mr Bush visited the national headquarters of the Red Cross in Washington DC yesterday and said: “The world saw this tidal wave of disaster ascend upon the Gulf Coast, and now they're going to see a tidal wave of compassion.”
In his NBC interview Mr Chertoff said: “The only way to avoid catastrophe [in a situation like this] was to get people out before the storm.” Once the levee protecting New Orleans from the flood waters had been breached, he said, logistical problems hampered the rescue and relief effort. Resources were stretched, he said, by the need to airlift survivors from the roofs of their houses while distributing aid to survivors.
The challenge now, said Mr Chertoff, was to focus on the rescue effort, “feed, clothe and educate a city of people and restore the infrastructure”.
In addition, he said, the US would have to confront the “greatest environmental mess we have seen in this country.”