NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - National Guard troops prepared to hunt on Thursday for thousands of people believed still in ruined New Orleans, as the White House sent a new wave of top officials into areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
The New Orleans stragglers were but a fraction of the million people displaced by the Aug. 29 storm in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Their fate in what was once one of Americas's favorite party cities was playing out in the spotlight.
Eddie Compass, the New Orleans police chief, said there were still thousands "wanting to leave" and waiting for help.
But some were staying in defiance of Mayor Ray Nagin's mandatory evacuation order. "Those that don't want us to find them, they hide," said Gregg Brown, a South Carolina game warden helping in the search.
Robert Johnson, 58, said he had no money and nowhere to go, and wanted to stay to protect his home.
Officials have said perhaps 10,000 people remain in the below-sea level city where water and electricity were cut off after levee breaks flooded most of what had been home to 450,000 residents.
With a national recovery effort that may cost taxpayers $150 billion and a death toll that may rise into the thousands, there was unrelenting criticism of the U.S. government's response to the disaster.
President George W. Bush ordered more tours of the region by top aides, including Vice President Dick Cheney, who was due on Thursday in hard-hit Mississippi as well as New Orleans.
In addition, the administration said Treasury Secretary John Snow, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and Social Security Commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart would travel to Houston, Louisiana, and Alabama on Thursday and Friday. They were to see relief facilities and get first-hand accounts about damage and recovery efforts.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, scorched by criticism of its performance, was handing out $2,000 debit cards to thousands of survivors. At the Houston Astrodome where 16,000 New Orleans evacuees are being housed, long lines formed for the money.
Criticism of the speed and scope of the government's response came from members of both political parties and the private sector.
The situation "amounts to a massive institutional failure," said Raymond Offenheiser, president of the Oxfam America affiliate of the international relief agency. Oxfam mounted in Mississippi the first domestic U.S. rescue in its 35-year history.
"Before Katrina, we reserved our emergency response for countries that lack the resources of the United States. If we've got this kind of failure at home, how can we expect poor countries to do better?" he asked.
A Canadian search-and-rescue team had made it to the flooded New Orleans suburb of St. Bernard Parish five days before the U.S. military, Louisiana state Sen. Walter Boasso said. "We've got Canadian flags flying everywhere," he said.
Bush's family also came in for criticism. A comment made earlier in the week by his mother, Barbara Bush, was slammed on Internet sites and newspaper pages.
Speaking of evacuees in the Astrodome, the former first lady told a reporter in Houston: "What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everybody is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway. This is working very well for them."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan described her comments as "a personal observation."
Leaders of Bush's Republican party said there would be a joint congressional investigation into the government's hurricane response, to the disappointment of minority Democrats who said probe should be turned over to an outside independent commission. Bush has also said he would lead a probe.
Bush's response to the crisis was rated "bad" or "terrible" by 42 percent of Americans surveyed for a CNN/USA Today Gallup poll released on Wednesday, compared with 35 percent who said it was "good" or "great."
Federal health officials said three people in the region had died from bacterial infections -- one of them an evacuee from Louisiana who died in Texas. They said tests had confirmed the floodwater in New Orleans was a witch's brew of sewage-borne bacteria.
Pumps gradually pumped the bacteria and chemical-laced oily water out of the city, but far more were out of commission than working.
The Congressional Budget Office said 400,000 jobs could be lost and the nation's economic growth slashed by up to 1 percentage point by the disaster.
The White House was preparing a new emergency budget request likely to total $40 billion to $50 billion for the recovery, in addition to $10.5 billion approved by Congress last week.
Some in the U.S. Congress estimate that federal spending will ultimately total upward of $150 billion.
Early estimates place the rebuilding cost for roads and bridges in Louisiana and Mississippi at nearly $2.5 billion, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said.
(Additional reporting by Paul Simao in New Orleans, Jim Loney in Baton Rouge, Adam Entous, Adam Tanner in Houston and Maggie Fox in Washington)
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