WASHINGTON - President George W. Bush's political agenda - indeed his very standing as his country's leader - is on the line as he launched an inquiry into the emergency operation and put himself in charge of it.
Congress returned yesterday with anger and embarrassment at the botched response to Hurricane Katrina stretching across normal party divides on Capitol Hill.
As the United States went back to work after the Labour Day holiday which traditionally signals the end of the northern summer, the President was everywhere visible at the helm. After chairing a Cabinet session, Bush held talks with congressional leaders on the hurricane crisis, before meeting representatives of charities leading the relief effort.
The White House also announced that Vice-President Dick Cheney will travel to the region today - the latest in a procession of top officials to inspect the devastation.
Bush tried to distance himself from the blame game already in progress. "I'll lead an investigation of what went right and what went wrong," he insisted.
"There will be ample time for people to figure out what went right, and what went wrong. What I'm interested [in] is helping save lives."
Barbara Bush, the former first lady and the President's mother, courted controversy by pointing out that many of the people forced out of their homes by Hurricane Katrina "were underprivileged anyway so this is working very well for them".
Even so, the President faces an uphill climb at best.
The next three months, political analysts say, could decide whether Bush acquires premature "lame duck" status.
It is essential he shows he is in command of the storm relief effort. Otherwise, they warn, his legislative plans, including further tax cuts, a contentious reform of immigration rules, and cuts in the Medicaid healthcare plan, will be in ruins.
Even before the hurricane struck, his approval ratings had slumped to under 45 per cent, the lowest of his presidency. Polls show two-thirds of Americans believe the federal Government, which he heads, was at fault, both before and after Katrina.
Senator Hillary Clinton, a likely presidential candidate for the Democrats in 2008, has urged the creation of a bipartisan blue-riband commission, similar to the bipartisan September 11 panel, to examine the handling of the hurricane tragedy.
The petrol price increase in the wake of Katrina, from an average national level of US$2.30 to more than US$3 a gallon, is also menacing for the White House. Unless swiftly reversed, higher petrol costs will feed into prices across the economy. Most economists expect at least a temporary faltering in growth in the final quarter of the year.
"We must ensure that the national nightmare that was Katrina never happens again," said Joe Lieberman, the senior Democrat on the Senate's Government Affairs Committee which is planning hearings on the disaster.
"My feelings went from concern to grief to anger, and then to embarrassment," Lieberman said, expressing a sentiment shared by Republicans as well as Democrats.
The debacle has made a mockery of claims that a new and efficient system had been put in place after the September 11 attacks to tackle national emergencies - of which a hurricane-provoked flood of New Orleans was near the top of every list.
Indeed, such is the frustration and anger on Capitol Hill that Leiberman's inquiry will be only one of several. All are bound to bring fierce criticism of the Government.
Sensing the Administration is on the ropes, Democrats will be tempted to step up opposition in areas utterly unconnected with Katrina.
Republicans lined up to criticise the relief effort.
"If our system did such a poor job when there was no enemy, how would the federal, state and local governments have coped with a terrorist attack that provided no advance warning and that was intent on causing as much death and destruction as possible?" said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who will lead an investigation by the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
She called the Government's response to Hurricane Katrina "woefully inadequate".
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada backed calls for a commission.
Senator Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican who lost his coastal home in the storm, Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown's job was in jeopardy.
"If he doesn't solve a couple of problems that we've got right now he ain't going to be able to hold the job, because what I'm going to do to him ain't going to be pretty."
* Estimates of damage to insured property and goods ranges from US$14 billion to US$35 billion.
* Germany's Hanover Re, the world's fourth largest reinsurer, said Katrina could be the costliest natural disaster ever, with insured losses of up to US$30 billion.
* Other firms, such as Brit Insurance, said the insurance cost of the clean-up could be as high US$50 billion.
* These numbers compare with an insurance hit from 1992's Hurricane Andrew of about US$21 billion and from the September 11, 2001, attacks of US$32 billion.
* Risk Management Solutions, a firm specialising in advice to companies on managing risks from catastrophes, estimates the total economic loss from the storm - including insured and uninsured losses and interrupted economic activity - could top US$100 billion.
- INDEPENDENT, additional reporting ReutersBy Rupert Cornwell