McCain called the response to Katrina "a perfect storm" of mismanagement by federal, state and local governments.
The Arizona senator walked a few blocks of the hard-hit Lower 9th Ward, passing tidy rebuilt stucco houses standing next to abandoned structures, their facades still spray-painted with the markings of rescue workers who went door to door nearly three years ago searching for bodies. FEMA trailers still dot the neighborhood. McCain said his teenage daughter Bridget had been there with a volunteer youth group a few weeks ago to help in the recovery.
"Never again, never again, will a disaster of this nature be handled in the disgraceful way it was handled," McCain declared.
He made the same pledge over and over during the day: "I promise you, never again."
McCain is campaigning this week in what he calls "forgotten" areas of the country, and he assured New Orleans residents that their situation was not lost on him.
"I've been going to places that are perhaps very cynical about government," he told students during a town hall at Xavier University. Trying to reach out for the votes of Democrats and independents, he pledged to be a president who would take action to erase that cynicism.
"As president of the United States, I'm not going to leave anybody behind," he said.
He said that beyond the most immediate needs of people in New Orleans, such as affordable housing, the top priorities now were to achieve the government's goal to fortify the city against 100-year storms by 2011, and to move beyond that find a way to protect the region against Category 5 hurricanes.
On the latter issue, he said, "It's time to end the studies and it's time to act."
McCain was unsparing in his criticism of the Bush administration on Katrina, and said members of Congress must share some of the blame for putting money into pork-barrel projects when those dollars should have been used to fortify the region against disaster. He said his record was clean on that count, with a consistent opposition to wasteful spending.
Without mentioning Mr. Bush directly, McCain said that when Katrina struck, "If I had been president, I would have ordered the plane landed at the nearest base and I'd of been over here." He repeated that later, saying, "I would've landed my airplane at the nearest Air Force base and come over personally."
McCain said the missteps of the Bush administration were well chronicled and undisputed, citing unqualified leaders, poor communication and a failure to recognize the dimensions of the problem.
In a conversation with reporters aboard his Straight Talk Express bus, McCain rejected the notion that he ran any risk of guilt by association with the Bush administration in coming to New Orleans, saying voters would judge him on his own record, not that of the current Republican president.
Democrats, however, were happy to draw a connection.
The Democratic National Committee said in a statement that McCain had opposed emergency assistance to the Gulf Coast in Katrina's aftermath and predicted he would be "more of the same Bush-Brownie inaction for the Gulf Coast. And that's the last thing Louisiana or the rest of America needs."
McCain's "call to action" tour this week is designed to demonstrate that he is a different kind of Republican, reaching out to all and ready to take action to help those in need. Earlier stops on his tour included Selma, Ala., site of a famed civil rights battle; a shuttered steel mill in Youngstown, Ohio, and a tiny coal town in Kentucky where President Johnson declared war on poverty.
Katrina, the most costly natural disaster ever to strike the United States, roared ashore in August 2005, killing more than 1,800 people and displacing more than 250,000. Total damages were estimated to be around $125 billion. The recovery has been uneven.
Now, New Orleans is repopulating, port business has steadily improved and sales tax revenues are near normal. But the city still faces problems with crime, homelessness and frustrations about the pace of rebuilding efforts. Overall, repopulation in the region remains slow and many major infrastructure repairs have yet to be done, according to a new Brookings Institution report.