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Bush gets firsthand look at flooded Iowa cities
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President Bush waves as he boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, Thursday, June 19, 2008, prior to leaving to tour Midwest flood damage. - photo by Associated Press
    CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — With the painful lessons of Hurricane Katrina still in mind, President Bush on Thursday opened an inspection tour of Midwest flooding that has forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes across six states.
    Bush was visiting the Iowa cities of Cedar Rapids and Iowa City on his first tour of the Midwest since heavy rains sent rivers surging over their banks. Bush was in Europe when the severe weather hit last week, but he made a point to show his deep concern while overseas.
    Cedar Rapids endured its worst flooding ever. The town was submerged by the Cedar River, which crested almost 20 feet above flood stage. Iowa City, a college town about 30 miles to the southeast, also was damaged by flooding.
    FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison, accompanying Bush on Air Force One, praised the ‘‘great coordination’’ between federal, state and local leaders. Bush also was accompanied by two Democratic lawmakers from Iowa, Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. Dave Loebsack.
    ‘‘What we learned from Katrina is that FEMA can’t do it all by itself,’’ Paulison said. The sluggish federal response when Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast was judged woefully inadequate and brought heavy criticism of Bush and FEMA.
    Paulison said FEMA was working better with other partners — the Army Corps of Engineers and even Wal-Mart — to distribute supplies. He said more than 3.3 million liters of water, 200,000 ready-to-eat meals and 4,000 rolls of plastic sheeting have been distributed.
    FEMA is also putting sandbags and other supplies in states or towns where flooding hasn’t hit yet or material has not been requested, just to be ready.
    ‘‘Another lesson learned from Katrina,’’ he said.
    He said 28,000 people have registered for federal assistance. The average response time at FEMA’s 24-hour call line is 12 seconds — compared to response times that sometimes took hours during Katrina, he said.
    Now a housing task is being formed in every state. Housing is the next big challenge.
    At least 24 people have been killed in flooding, the majority in Iowa. At least 35,000 people evacuated.
    Paulison said Bush wanted to go to disaster sites himself to ask the state and local officials what they need, to make sure they’re getting it — even to make sure that his federal team is giving him the right information.
    ‘‘It gives him a good visual of what’s going on,’’ Paulison said. ‘‘When we get back to the plane, I get 40 questions.’’
    Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumed Republican nominee for president, was also visiting Iowa Thursday in a tour separate from Bush’s. His opponent, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, helped fill sandbags over the weekend in Quincy, Ill.

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