NEW ORLEANS – President Bush, ducking low-hanging tree limbs and electrical wires, rode in an open truck Monday for his first close-up look at New Orleans’ ravaged, trash-strewn, flooded neighborhoods. He denied that poor, black victims of Hurricane Katrina were ignored because of their race.

After a federal response criticized as slow and inadequate, Michael Brown, the embattled director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, announced his resignation in Washington. His departure had been expected after he was stripped of his onsite command of the hurricane relief effort three days earlier.

Bush replied testily to a reporter who asked whether he felt let down by federal officials in responding to the disaster.

“Look, there will be plenty of time to play the blame game,” he said. “That’s what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to say somebody is at fault. And, look, I want to know. I want to know exactly what went on and how it went on, and we’ll continually assess inside my administration.”

Bush spent the night here on the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima, and toured the city for 45 minutes. The president’s convoy moved slowly through just-drained neighborhoods caked with black mud and through streets where the water line reached well into the trucks’ tire wells or lapped at curbs. At times, the stench was overwhelming.

Bush seized on the news of falling water levels throughout New Orleans and pronounced the city on the mend. Business owners were issues passes to retrieve records and equipment, and more than half of southeastern Louisiana’s water treatment plants were back in operation.

“My impression of New Orleans is this: that there is a recovery on the way,” Bush said in the shadow of a freeway overpass, destroyed cars littering the landscape behind him and rescue choppers occasionally drowning out his words.

Polls show broad dissatisfaction with Bush’s handling of the hurricane and his job approval rating is at the lowest point of his presidency. This was his third and longest trip here since Katrina pulverized Gulf Coast communities and submerged most of New Orleans two weeks earlier. He is expected to return to the region on Thursday, and aides were discussing plans for him to address the nation from a site to be determined.

Bush’s tour of New Orleans started by regular motorcade, taking him in his Suburban through the nearly deserted city – past the now-infamous Superdome, through parts of the central business district and the Bywater District with the orange X’s on doors signifying the visit of a search-and-rescue team, and into the French Quarter. There, he and his entourage jumped into the military vehicles.

Escorted by Humvee, Bush stood in the truck bed flanked by a grim-looking New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco – both of whom have criticized the federal response.

Many people, particularly in the black community, have suggested that one reason for the slow response was that most of the storm victims, especially in New Orleans, were poor and black and that the administration doesn’t care about them. The president said that wasn’t so.

“The storm didn’t discriminate and neither will the recovery effort,” he said. “When those Coast Guard choppers … were pulling people off roofs, they didn’t check the color of a person’s skin. They wanted to save lives.”

Bush also clarified his oft-criticized remark that no one had anticipated that New Orleans’ levees being breached. He said there was an initial impression that the city had escaped heavy damage “and I myself thought we had dodged a bullet.” He said he got that impression from the media.

Before Monday, Bush had only seen New Orleans’ deepest misery from the air – from aboard Air Force on the way back to Washington from his Texas ranch and again from a helicopter two days after that. His only foray into the city was to one of the breached levees on its edge.

The president ended his two-day stay in the region in Gulfport, Miss., a town on the coast where Katrina’s winds turned scores of homes and businesses into matchsticks.

Bush stopped at a distribution center run by Christ in Action. “Good to see you” and “Good luck,” Bush murmured to people he greeted along long tables where food and supplies such as water, diapers and toilet paper were being distributed. He also cheered on a group of Mexican marines and Navy Seabees just back from Iraq who were clearing debris at the 28th St. Elementary School.

He said earlier it was “preposterous to claim” that the nation’s military was stretched too thinly with the war in Iraq to deal with the Gulf Coast devastation.

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