Bush Heads to Texas as Gustav Menaces
Sunday, August 31, 2008
WASHINGTON -- President Bush set out Monday to show the nation that his administration has learned the haunting lessons of Katrina, planting himself near the danger zone even before Hurricane Gustav hits the Gulf Coast.
On the day he had planned to address the Republican National Convention, Bush headed instead to Texas, a staging ground for emergency response efforts and a shelter for Gulf Coast evacuees. The president is expected to visit Austin and San Antonio on the same day that Gustav, already a deadly force, was expected to make landfall in the United States west of New Orleans.
He made no statement as he left the White House.
Ahead of his trip, Bush got a briefing Sunday at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the operation of so much scorn under Bush's leadership during Katrina.
He promised to get state and local officials what they need. He implored residents to evacuate as ordered. He warned that serious flooding could return.
"The message to the people of the Gulf Coast is, this storm is dangerous," Bush said.
His underlying message was that the government will do better this time. More preparation. Faster response. Better coordination. Total attention.
It was a lesson summed up this way Monday by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff: "Planning, preparation and moving early," Chertoff said in a series of appearances on morning network news shows.
This time, Chertoff said, the evacuations, especially of the infirm and those who needed extra help leaving, were successful.
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt declared a public health emergency to ensure that people enrolled in Medicare, Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama continue to receive their health care items and services even after they leave their homes.
Even first lady Laura Bush was involved in the Bush administration's effort to stress that things would be different this time. "Mistakes were made by everyone" at all levels of government in the handling of Katrina, Mrs. Bush said Monday on CNN. "Part of it was not being able to have the good communication that you would need between the three governments. And we have taken care of that, we know that's a lot better. And the lessons that were learned from Katrina can serve the United States very well in any kind of disaster."
The enduring memory of Katrina is not the ferocity of the storm, but the bungled reaction that led to preventable deaths and chaos. Disaster response has undoubtedly improved since then. But Katrina was a low chapter in American history, and it deeply eroded credibility in Bush's administration.
By flying to Texas, Bush clearly wanted to show the nation, and particularly people of the Gulf Coast, that he is committed to answering their needs. He said he hopes to get to Louisiana, too, but will choose a time that does not interfere with emergency response efforts.
Thousands fled New Orleans under a mandatory evacuation orders as New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin warned that looters will be sent to jail. Bush called Nagin on Sunday and told the mayor he was "ready to go through this again with him," according to White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.
Bush has had a visible role in relief efforts, especially after Katrina, but also in natural disasters that preceded it.
But heading to the site of a disaster even before it is expected to happen is highly unusual, and a measure of the stakes surrounding this storm.
Bush said local leaders should get "everything they need from the federal government to prepare for what all anticipate will be a difficult situation." As for the people of the battered Gulf Coast, Bush said: "They've made it through great challenges in the past and they're going to make it through this one."
Still, he was also careful not to be rosy during his comments at the emergency response headquarters in Washington.
Even though the president said levees are "stronger than they've ever been," he said people throughout the Gulf Coast, especially in New Orleans, "need to understand that in a storm of this size there is serious risk of significant flooding."