WASHINGTON – After a three-day tour to the Gulf states region, President Bush (search) heads to the Energy Department in Washington on Monday to attend a briefing on energy issues related to the recent hurricanes along the Gulf Coast.
On Sunday, Bush had barely finished his three-state survey of the government response to Hurricane Rita (search) and headed home to Washington when Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (search) announced she is seeking $20.2 billion from the federal government to fix New Orleans' damaged levees.
She also is asking for another $11.5 billion from the federal government for transportation repairs around the state after Hurricane Katrina (search).
Bush left the Louisiana capital of Baton Rouge after visiting with Blanco and receiving a briefing at a Federal Emergency Management Agency field office in a former department store named Maison Blanche, French for "White House." From there, the president urged Gulf Coast residents not to rush back to their homes.
"I know a lot of people want to get back home. It's important that there be an orderly process. It's important there be an assessment done of infrastructure. And it's important for the people of the affected areas of Louisiana to listen carefully to the governor and local authorities about the proper timing of return home," he said with Blanco by his side.
Bush did not say anything about paying for the cost of repairing the levees, but he did say the Army Corps of Engineers briefed him and Blanco about repairing levees and pumping water out of parts of the city that were re-flooded by Hurricane Rita.
"I would say it's an optimistic appraisal, in the sense that work has started now, and they can start ... draining that part of the city again," Bush said.
Blanco noted the difference in the federal response to Katrina, after which she criticized the federal government for slow reaction time, and its response to Rita.
"I do want to tell you how much we appreciated watching all of the integrated forces at work as one," Blanco told Bush.
The Louisiana visit followed a briefing at a San Antonio Air Force base by the commanders of Joint Task Force Rita. Military officials told the president that the United States needs a national plan to coordinate search and rescue efforts following major disasters or terrorist attacks. The president said that he is very interested in whether the military should be the one to take charge when a major disaster strikes.
"Clearly, in the case of a terrorist attack that would be the case, but is there a natural disaster — of a certain size that would then enable the Defense Department to become the lead agency in coordinating and leading the response effort?" Bush asked. "That's going to be a very important consideration for Congress to think about."
On the way back to Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the president "believes very strongly that Congress needs to consider" having the Defense Department take the lead in "extraordinary" circumstances where "a clear line of authority" is needed.
McClellan said some of the lessons learned from the back-to-back hurricanes were the need to start evacuations early, better coordinate helicopter recoveries and pay more attention to "special needs" citizens like the elderly, infirm and institutionalized.
Back in Washington, the acting director of the FEMA credited early evacuations before Rita as the key to saving lives this time. He also suggested that because Rita hit hardest in the less-populated towns along the Texas coast, the damage was minimized.
While touring command operations, Bush made a point of staying away from the disaster zones themselves, not wanting to be a distraction.
Bush got an update about the federal hurricane response from military leaders at Randolph Air Force Base (search). He heard from Lt. Gen. Robert Clark, joint military task force commander for Rita, and Maj. Gen. John White, a task force member, who described search and rescue operations after Hurricane Katrina as a "train wreck."
"[With Katrina] we knew the coordination piece was a problem," White said. "With Rita, we had the benefit of time. We may not have that time in an earthquake scenario or similar incident. ... With a national plan, we'll have a quick jump-start and an opportunity to save more people."
He said better coordination is needed to prevent five helicopters, for example, from showing up to rescue the same individual.
"That's the sort of simplistic thing we'd like to avoid," he said. "We're not maximizing the use of forces to the best efficiency. Certainly that was a train wreck that we saw in New Orleans."
Bush thanked White for his recommendations.
"This is precisely the kind of information I'll take back to Washington to help all of us understand how to do a better job," the president said.
Bush's comments came as residents along the Texas and Louisiana coasts began clearing up debris and power crews worked to restore power to more than 1 million customers in four states.
Rita, which hit the Gulf Coast early Saturday, toppled trees, sparked fires and swamped Louisiana shoreline towns with a 15-foot storm surge that required daring boat and helicopter rescues of hundreds of people.
Still, the devastation was less severe than that caused by Katrina when it made landfall on Aug. 29.
After the briefing, Bush attended a worship service at a chapel on the base.
Bush's appearance was clearly a surprise to the base congregation.
"We usually make new people stand up and introduce themselves," chaplain Col. David Schroeder quipped before announcing the president.
On Saturday, he made a stop in Austin, Texas, and at the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado.
"Part of the reason I've come down here and part of the reason I went to Northcom was to better understand how the federal government can plan and surge equipment, to mitigate natural disasters," Bush said Sunday.
Under the existing relationship, a state's governor is chiefly responsible for disaster preparedness and response. Governors can request assistance from the FEMA. If federal armed forces are brought in to help, they do so in support of the FEMA, through Northern Command, set up as part of a military reorganization after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.