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Bush: 'I Take Responsibility'

President Bush Tuesday took responsibility for government failures in dealing with Hurricane Katrina and said the disaster raised broader questions about the government's ability to respond to natural disasters as well as terror attacks.

"Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government," Mr. Bush said at joint White House news conference with the president of Iraq. "And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility."

More grim news came Tuesday, as Hurricane Katrina's death toll in Louisiana climbed to 423 Tuesday, up from 279 a day before, the state Health Department said.

The jump came as recovery workers turned more and more of their attention to gathering up and counting the corpses in a city all but cleared out of the living.

How high the death toll might go is unclear.

Mayor Ray Nagin said earlier this month that Louisiana could have 10,000 dead. But a street-by-street sweep of the city last week yielded far fewer bodies than feared, and authorities said the death toll could be well below the dire projections.

Up until the past few days, authorities were slow to release numbers, saying they were concentrating on rescuing the living first. Rescuers reported pushing corpses aside, or tying them down to banisters or roofs for workers to collect later.

In other developments:

  • The new acting head of FEMA, R. David Paulison, pledged Tuesday to intensify efforts to finding more permanent housing for the tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors now in shelters. "We're going to get people out of the shelters, we're going to move on and get them the help they need," he said. Paulison has three decades of firefighting experience and a background in emergency management.
  • The New Orleans airport reopened on a limited basis Tuesday, reports CBS News Correspondent Steve Futterman, with three passenger flights arriving and three departing each day.
  • Mississippi landlords were being told strongly that they can't evict people just to rent to someone else for more money, reports CBS News Correspondent Lee Frank. With tens of thousands of people having no place left to live, county judges are trying to make sure renters are not pushed out.
  • The port of New Orleans expected the arrival late Tuesday of its first cargo ship since the hurricane, and at least three more ships by week's end, said Gary LaGrange, port president and chief executive. The arriving ship was carrying up to 500 containers of coffee and wood products from Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, LaGrange said.

    Mr. Bush's admission comes just days after accusing the news media and critics of the administration storm response of "playing the blame game," reports CBS News White House Correspondent Peter Maer.

    "I want to know what went right and what went wrong," the president said. "I want to know how to better cooperate with state and local government, to be able to answer that very question that you asked, 'Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack or another severe storm?'"

    Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the relief operation was entering a new phase.

    Initially, he said, the most important priority was evacuating people, getting them to safety, providing food, water and medical care.

    "Now we have to reconstitute the communities that have been devastated," Chertoff added.

    He said the federal government would look increasingly to state and local officials for guidance on rebuilding the devastated communities along the Gulf Coast.

    "The federal government can't drive permanent solutions down the throats of state and local officials," Chertoff said. "I don't think anyone should envision a situation in which they're going to take a back seat. They're going to take a front seat," he said.

    Chertoff said that teams of federal auditors were being dispatched to the stricken areas to make sure that billions of dollars worth of government contracts were being properly spent.

  • "We want to get aid to the people who need it quickly ... but we have a responsibility as stewards of the public money," Chertoff said.

    "We're going to cut through red tape," he said, "but we're not going to cut through laws and rules that govern ethics."

    Rarely has a White House favorite fallen so far so fast, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart. Little more than a week ago former FEMA Director Mike Brown was lavished with praise for his job on Hurricane Katrina. The president even called him by nickname — "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." — but a week later, he's been replaced. And it's likely he won't be last to lose his job over the debacle.

    "That's life in the big city. If you're the leader of a big organization that's stumbling, you'll probably get relieved," said CBS News Consultant Randy Larsen on The Early Show.

    The interim appointment of Paulison, with 30 years experience, "looks like a real smart decision to me," Larsen said.

    Despite miles of still flooded streets, there were encouraging signs of recovery in New Orleans: Nearly two-thirds of southeastern Louisiana's water treatment plants were up and running. Forty-one of 174 permanent pumps were in operation, on pace to help drain the still half-flooded city by Oct. 8.

    But that doesn't mean a quick return to normalcy for residents or for business owners, who were let back in Monday to assess the damage and begin the slow process of starting over.

    It will be at least three months before New Orleans' public water system is fully operational, said Sgt. John Zeller, a California National Guard engineer working on the systems. Some homes have running water now, but it's mostly untreated Mississippi River water — for anyone wanting a bath, "It's like jumping in the river right now," he said.

    Others will find their homes aren't even livable.

    FEMA already expects to be providing temporary housing for some 200,000 hurricane victims for up to five years, most of them in Louisiana. It plans to use trailer homes to create "temporary cities," some with populations up to 25,000, said Brad Fair, head of the FEMA housing effort.

    "This may not be quite on the scale of building the pyramids, but it's close," Fair said. He had no cost estimates.

    In New Orleans, a contractor was back at one of the previously repaired levees after water was found to be seeping through. Brig. Gen. Doug Pritt of the Oregon National Guard described it as a minor leak.

    Insurance experts have doubled to at least $40 billion their estimate of insured losses caused by Katrina. Risk Management Solutions Inc. of Newark, California, put the total economic damage at more than $125 billion.

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