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Bush Takes on the Nitty-Gritty of Corrdinating Hurricane Aid

By James Gerstenzang
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON

The White House strove to make clear Monday that the devastation Hurricane Andrew caused in Florida was one domestic problem in which President Bush was fully engaged, and the president himself said that he would return to the stricken region and to storm-damaged Louisiana for a follow-up look Tuesday.

The president, who began the campaign year sharply criticized for appearing aloof from the economic problems besetting the nation, worked his way through a schedule Monday brimming with back-to-back meetings with representatives of virtually every federal agency playing a role in disaster relief.

Playing the role of a one-man relief coordinator, or city manager from afar, the president delved into the nitty-gritty of the task, according to accounts from his press secretary.

Bush looked into whether Social Security checks could be delivered; whether sufficient plywood would be available for repair work; what sort of problems the Salvation Army was running into; and whether the insurance industry would be able to cope.

Those may not be the sort of details that ordinarily reach the Oval Office -- or the Cabinet Room, in this case -- but after the president was criticized last week as having grandstanded in Florida hours after the hurricane struck and then having let the federal relief effort founder, the White House portrayed him as being aggressively involved and versed in the minutiae of the task.

"We need to follow up with our agencies and departments in every way that we possibly can to assist the victims of this storm," Bush said in a picture-taking session at the start of a meeting with Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander; Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan; Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp; Patricia Saiki, administrator of the Small Business Administration; and Budget Director Richard G. Darman.

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The intense political climate of this stage of the presidential campaign means not only that Bush must do the right thing, but also that he sometimes must be showcased doing it in the most obvious and exaggerated fashion. Indeed, cameras were brought into the meetings several times on Monday.

At the end of the day, Bush made "one special plea ... and that is an appeal to all Americans to give generously to these volunteer organizations who serve so valiantly." He said that his travel to Florida and Louisiana was intended to assure the people there that "we're with them for the long haul."

Earlier, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said the administration was "quite sympathetic" to requests from state and local authorities in Florida that they be exempted from federal regulations requiring them to match federal grants with a specific contribution of their own government funds. And, Fitzwater, who blamed the perception of federal foot-dragging on "a lot of media second-guessing," said the Department of Education was sending $40 million to help pay the costs of shifting thousands of children to new schools or temporary classrooms when school gets off to a belated start on Sept. 14.