WASHINGTON - President Bush promised Wednesday that Washington ""will do everything it can' to help Southern Californians fearing the worst from wildfires blazing through canyons and neighborhoods for a fourth straight day.
""Americans all across this land care deeply about them,' the president said after a special Cabinet meeting on the crisis. ""We're concerned about their safety. We're concerned about their property.'
Officials throughout the Bush administration talked in blunt terms about offering more in this disaster than the feeble reaction that followed Hurricane Katrina. That storm blew ashore in August 2005, delivering a sharp blow to Bush's presidency and devastating a region whose misery still continues largely unabated two years later.
The California fires are the first disaster since then that begins to approach the scale of Katrina. The White House was determined to convey a picture of a speedy and effective response, and seemed resigned to comparisons despite the different circumstances of the two crises - for instance the relative poverty of the Katrina victims and the hurricane's much more comprehensive reach.
""I think it's inevitable,' said White House press secretary Dana Perino. ""I understand that the comparison is going to be there, and so I'm not going to call it unfair.'
Bush prepared to travel to the region Thursday for a firsthand look at how the disaster is unfolding and how Washington's efforts to help are working. He also upped the government's engagement by signing a major disaster declaration for California.
The president had already declared a federal emergency on Tuesday for seven California counties, triggering short-term federal help. On Wednesday, responding to a late-night request from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bush went a step further and issued the broader major disaster declaration.
Such declarations set in motion long-term federal recovery programs, some requiring matches from state coffers, to help state and local governments, families, individuals and certain nonprofit organizations recover. The assistance varies from direct aid for uninsured losses to help with rebuilding infrastructure.
At the Cabinet meeting, Bush and a few dozen top administration officials heard from FEMA chief David Paulison and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who Bush had dispatched to the region. Bush had also heard from them during a conference call Tuesday night.
Afterward, Bush sounded satisfied with his administration's performance.
""I believe the effort is well-coordinated,' the president told reporters. ""I know we're getting the manpower and assets on the ground that have been requested by the state and local governments.'
Bush said Schwarzenegger had told him he is getting everything he needs from Washington.
""I assured him that if he needs anything and we're able to provide it, we will do so,' the president said.