WASHINGTON – President Bush, faced with the prospect of a second monster hurricane striking the still-battered Gulf Coast on his watch, checked in with governors and federal officials Saturday to make sure Washington was doing all it can. He prepared for the possibility of travel to the region and designated two more states eligible for federal help ahead of Hurricane Gustav's landfall.
The president called state leaders in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas in the early morning from the White House before heading out for a 90-minute bike ride, spokesman Scott Stanzel said. Those states are in the potential path of the hurricane, which has been cutting a deadly route through the Caribbean and picked up even more power Saturday, probably en route to a terrifying Category 5 designation.
Gustav crossed Cuba's western tip before moving into the Gulf of Mexico and could reach the U.S. by as early as late Monday or early Tuesday. Just three years after Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans, a calamity from which the city still is not nearly recovered, it appeared very likely to get slammed again, by at least tropical-storm-force winds if not worse.
Bush also received regular updates from officials and aides about the storm's path and the government's preparations.
The president asked each governor if the federal government was providing the help they need and pledged "the full support" of his administration, Stanzel said.
Bush praised governors for mobilizing their states effectively to get ready.
"That doesn't mean that everything will be totally smooth," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "We're facing what could be a very strong hurricane, possibly one of the largest and strongest to hit America since records began."
The Bush White House was badly burned by its fumbling response after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005. Bush's image as a strong leader has never entirely rebounded, even though he has labored to improve on the Katrina performance.
On Friday, Bush pre-emptively declared states of emergency for Louisiana and Texas; he added Mississippi and Alabama on Saturday. Such a move is rarely taken before a disaster hits. The declaration clears the way for federal aid to supplement state and local efforts and formalizes coordination. The administration did the same thing before Katrina struck.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Federal Emergency Management Agency chief David Paulison have visited the region to monitor developments, and Chertoff was returning on Sunday. Equipment and people were put in position and safe shelters readied, with cots, blankets and hygiene kits en route.
The military was flying 1,500 civilian critical care patients from Louisiana and Texas to safer locations over the weekend. Some 16,000 other civilians could be flown from New Orleans to Dallas-Fort Worth, according to U.S. Northern Command, based in Colorado.
Paulison said during a briefing Saturday that the entire mobilization is "much, much different than we saw three years ago." The kind of resources being put in place now and the coordination with local officials, all before the storm, are things that didn't happen until afterward last time, he said.
"We have gone from a reactive organization ... to a proactive organization," he said.
In language that revealed officials' high level of worry about just how punishing this storm could be, Paulison urged everyone to evacuate. He said there is plenty of help in place for people who do not have transportation or money to get out on their own. "There's no reason for anyone to stay in New Orleans to ride out this storm," he said. "We can't stop the damage from happening. What we can do is move people out of harm's way."
The White House also kept a close eye out to see whether Bush might need to change his plans to travel to St. Paul, Minn., on Monday to be the night's star speaker at the Republican National Convention. Perino said White House staff are discussing a range of possibilities, including an address by satellite, in case Bush decides to cancel in favor of traveling to the region either before or after the storm. More was expected to be known Sunday.
One of the reasons Bush was so criticized after Katrina was that he stuck to a schedule that took him from his ranch in Texas on a two-day trip to Arizona and California. There, he promoted a Medicare proposal while making just scant references to Katrina even as it slammed the Gulf Coast. Bush even happily strummed a guitar backstage at one event. He did not return to Washington until two days after the storm and did not visit the region until five days after.
Other preparations under way:
—FEMA teams are stocking up on emergency goods, including more than 2.4 million liters of water, 4 million meals, 478 generators, and 267 truckloads of blankets and cots, to have ready for hurricane victims.
—The Transportation Department is assisting states with evacuation procedures, such as by tracking fuel availability on major highways and supporting air-traffic control with standby mobile equipment in Houston