COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – President Bush (search) hopscotched the country from one high-tech disaster command center to another Saturday, declaring himself satisfied with the government's response to the latest monster hurricane.
Seeking to project a take-charge role on Hurricane Rita (search), Bush tracked its assault on Texas and Louisiana from a situation room at the U.S. Northern Command (search) headquarters in the Rocky Mountain foothills more than 1,000 miles away from the storm's landfall, and then flew to two towns in Texas central to the response.
Nearly six hours after Rita struck the coastline, Bush — surrounded by plasma screens and slide projections — got a detailed briefing on the federal plan to deal with the possibility of heavy flooding in eastern Texas and western Louisiana, additional spills from levees in and around New Orleans, and disruptions to U.S. energy supplies.
"We're in good shape," Navy Capt. Brad Johanson, director of Northern Command's joint operations center, told Bush after outlining the military personnel and equipment hurrying in to help.
After an hourlong briefing, the president said: "It comforts me knowing that our federal government is well-organized and well-prepared to deal with Rita."
From Colorado Springs, Colo., where Northern Command is based, Bush went to a Texas operations center in Austin that was humming with dozens of people busy at computers and phones.
"I know for a lot of people in this state, it's some miserable times," he said there. "I hope you can take some comfort in knowing there's a lot of people, like the people in this room, who working overtime to save you and to help you."
Later, arriving in San Antonio where he was spending the night, Bush thanked the town's residents for giving "safe haven" to 300,000 victims of Hurricane Katrina (search). On Sunday, the president was making two stops in San Antonio, where many federal supplies and personnel were being staged for Rita. He was then to travel to Baton Rouge, La., before returning to Washington.
The last-minute scurrying to set up photo opportunities for Bush showed the White House in crisis-management mode. With his approval ratings lower than ever, he has suffered from the perception that both he and his administration responded too slowly to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Mississippi coast and southeastern Louisiana nearly a month ago.
At that time, Bush waited until two days after the storm hit to return to Washington from an August break at his Texas ranch. Americans also saw images of thousands of people in horrible shelter conditions in New Orleans waiting for food, water, medicine and rescue, and the administration was blamed by many for not doing more sooner.
White House aides were eager to avoid a repeat with Rita and to try to restore the public's trust in the president. But they also were aware of the risk of criticism if Bush's large entourage got in the way of storm response.
So they settled on the Northern Command, set up after the 2001 terrorist attacks to direct the military's homeland security activities, for the president to spend the first hours after Rita struck.
Bush arrived Friday evening for one briefing, then woke early Saturday for a series of other meetings that lasted more than four hours. He also thanked the military personnel working overtime on the disaster and discussed with command leadership some of the options for giving the armed forces a broader role in such situations in the future, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.
Saturday's travel also kept Bush far from Washington, where tens of thousands of Iraq war opponents marched past the White House. The protest was spurred in part by Cindy Sheehan (search), the California woman whose son was killed in Iraq last year and who drew thousands of demonstrators to her 26-day vigil outside Bush's Texas ranch in August.
Bush's presence in a briefing room hundreds of miles from the White House and the storm recalled the scene Tuesday aboard the USS Iwo Jima (search) as he received an update on the progress of Rita. He had flown from Washington to the ship, docked in New Orleans, to be briefed on the hurricane's approach via videoconference by two officials back in Washington.
The president also devoted his weekly radio address on Saturday to hurricane response, as he has now for weeks. He pledged not to forget the massive job of recovering from Katrina, even as the focus turns to Rita .
"We'll do our duty," he said, while urging local and state governments, the private sector and ordinary people to do so, too.
In Austin, Bush pleaded with the millions of people who evacuated ahead of Rita to avoid streaming back to cities like Houston so that essential personnel such as troops and nurses could get through. "It's important that you delay your trip," he said.