WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush is keeping hands-on in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav, in contrast with his administration's slower response to the more devastating Hurricane Katrina three years ago.
Bush left the White House Wednesday for a briefing at an emergency operations center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, two days after checking on command centers in neighboring Texas as the storm unfolded.
"We are thankful that the damage in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast was less than many had feared," Bush said on the eve of his return to the area.
"I commend the governors of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas for their sure-handed response and seamless coordination with the federal government," Bush said Tuesday via satellite to the Republican National Convention. "I thank all of the wonderful volunteers who stepped forward to help their brothers and sisters in need."
He urged Gulf Coast residents to wait for local officials to give them a green light to return to their homes.
"We know that there is still risk even after the storm has passed," he said. "So I ask citizens across the region to listen closely to local officials and follow their instructions before returning to their homes."
The storm that struck the U.S. on Monday largely spared New Orleans and Louisiana, but neighborhoods remained without power and community water and sewage systems were not all working. Bush, who visited two Texas emergency command centers on Monday as Gustav lashed the coast, has declared a major disaster exists in Louisiana, where Gov. Bobby Jindal claims the state is at "halftime" in the Gustav ordeal.
The first of the 2 million people who fled Gustav began to trickle home Tuesday from shelters, many grumbling about the wait for the all-clear. Some evacuees, particularly in Texas, on the far fringes of the storm's path, suggested authorities overreacted in demanding they leave their homes.
Emergency officials, however, strongly defended the decision to evacuate coastal areas, saying it is better to be safe than sorry. That lesson was driven home by Katrina, which killed 1,600 people in 2005, compared with nine deaths attributed so far to Gustav.
Officials noted that New Orleans' levees held, and Gustav struck only a glancing blow. But when trees fell on homes, power lines went down and roads were washed out, there were few people around to get hurt. And there was significant damage: Early insurance industry estimates put the expected damage to covered properties at anywhere from $2 billion to $10 billion. That is high, but well short of Katrina's $41 billion.
More tests of US hurricane preparedness may already be cued. Three storms were lining up in the open Atlantic Ocean, with Tropical Storm Hanna leading the way. Hanna has plenty of time to strengthen into a hurricane before possibly striking Florida and Georgia later in the week.