RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. – President Bush on Monday pledged extensive federal help for victims of Hurricane Katrina (search) to "get your lives back in order." The government put into effect a massive emergency assistance program that included rushing baby formula, communications equipment, generators, water and ice into hard-hit areas.
Bush also was expected to tap into the nation's emergency petroleum stockpiles to help refineries affected by the storm, administration officials said. Final details were being worked out, they said.
The government's supply — nearly 700 million barrels of oil stored in underground salt caverns along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast — was established to cushion oil markets during energy disruptions.
As the storm surged ashore just east of New Orleans on Monday, Bush was traveling in the West — here and in El Mirage, Ariz. — to pitch a new Medicare (search) prescription drug benefit. The hurricane, however, took top billing at both stops.
By the time Bush spoke in California, his focus had changed from urging people to stay out of harm's way to talking in the past tense of "a storm that hit with a lot of ferocity."
"It's a storm now that is moving through and now is the time for governments to help people get their feet on the ground," Bush said. "For those of you who are concerned about whether or not we are prepared to help — don't be. We are."
He added, "We're in place, we've got equipment in place, supplies in place and once we're able to assess the damage we'll be able to move in and help those good folks in the affected areas."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (search) had medical teams, rescue squads and groups prepared to supply food and water poised in a semicircle around New Orleans.
"I was impressed with the evacuation. Once it was ordered it was very smooth," FEMA Director Michael Brown said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. With the storm moving north, Brown said he expected to see flooding in Tennessee and the Ohio Valley.
In other storm-related developments:
— The president made emergency disaster declarations for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The difference between these declarations and preliminary ones issued over the weekend was that the new declarations allow for the drawdown of federal funds in disaster relief and recovery.
— The American Red Cross (search) said it had thousands of volunteers mobilized for the hurricane. It was the "largest single mobilization that we've done for any single natural disaster," said spokesman Bradley Hague. The organization set up operational headquarters in Baton Rouge.
— The Environmental Protection Agency dispatched emergency crews to Louisiana and Texas because of concern about oil and chemical spills.
— The Coast Guard closed ports and waterways along the Gulf Coast and positioned craft around the area to be ready to conduct post-hurricane search and rescue operations.
— The Agriculture Department said its Food and Nutrition Service will provide meals and other commodities, such as infant formula, distilled water for babies and emergency food stamps.
— The Federal Aviation Administration said airports were closed in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La.; Biloxi, Miss.; Mobile, Ala.; Pensacola, Fla., and Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Airlines have moved their equipment away from the stricken areas and canceled all flights, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said. Many air traffic control facilities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were closed.
— The Defense Department dispatched emergency coordinators to Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi to provide a wide range of assistance including communications equipment, search and rescue operations, medical teams and other emergency supplies.
—The Health and Human Services Department sent 38 doctors and nurses to Jackson, Miss., to be used where needed, and 30 pallets of medical supplies to the region, including first aid materials, sterile gloves and oxygen tanks.
Meanwhile, Brown gave Bush two briefings on the powerful storm, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
"The federal government and the state governments and the local governments will work side-by-side to do all we can to help get your lives back in order," Bush said.
The president was expected to authorize at least a loan of some oil from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, said administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
McClellan said the president was waiting to hear the Energy Department's recommendation before making a decision. "Obviously, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is there for emergency situations, and that would include natural disasters," the spokesman told reporters.
McClellan later said Bush had spoken with the governors of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama "to make sure they were getting what they needed from the federal government."
In a statement, Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman said, "Beginning last week, we have been in close contact with our federal partners, site managers at various locations of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and companies that operate oil refineries to prepare for any disruption in oil production."
"Over the next few days, we will continue to gain more information on the specific needs and then be able to make a better determination on how we can help," Bodman said.
The Gulf of Mexico is the heart of U.S. oil and natural gas operations, and the storm so far has caused the shutdown of about 8 percent of U.S. refining capacity — or about 1 million barrels, further driving up gasoline costs.
It was not known how long oil and natural-gas production in the Gulf would be shut down.
If Bush decides to tap the reserves, as he did in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan struck the Gulf of Mexico, it would not be designed to put downward pressure on gas prices but to give refineries in the area a temporary supply of crude oil to replace interrupted shipments from tankers or offshore oil platforms affected by the storm.
Some 6,000 National Guard personnel from Louisiana and Mississippi who would otherwise be available to help deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are in Iraq.
Even so, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said the states have adequate National Guard units to handle the hurricane needs, with at least 60 percent of the guard available in each state. He said about 6,500 National Guard troops were available in Louisiana, about 7,000 in Mississippi, nearly 10,000 in Alabama and about 8,200 in Florida.
The First U.S. Army, based at Fort Gillem near Atlanta, has 1,600 National Guard troops who were already there training to go to Iraq, and they will be available to assist the states or evacuate Camp Shelby in Mississippi, if necessary.
According to the Navy, two ships were moved from Pascagoula, Miss., and taken out to sea where they could ride out the storm. Most of the Navy's ships were on the east coast of Florida and were not affected. The Navy also moved dozens of aircraft out of Pensacola, Fla., and sent them to bases in Oklahoma and Texas. Aircraft that were not able to fly were put in hangars.