WASHINGTON – The government's emergency coordinators on Sunday credited better stockpiling of supplies, early evacuations and more military muscle for saving lives during Hurricane Rita (search) as President Bush pushed to give the Pentagon a larger role in future disasters.
American consumers also got good news as early reports indicated little damage to the Gulf Coast's refineries, crude oil prices dropped and the White House economic adviser predicted only a temporary hit from Rita.
From the buzz of Navy helicopters plucking citizens from rooftops to ample truckloads of water and food, the Bush administration sought to contrast its response this weekend to the failed actions in the hours and days after Hurricane Katrina (search).
"Our response operation is in full swing," said R. David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, "The coordination and smooth preparation for this hurricane has been absolutely phenomenal."
Paulison credited early evacuations as the key to saving lives, but he and local officials warned against letting residents return too soon to twice-flooded New Orleans.
Officials said more than 400 people had been rescued and more than 200 treated for injuries by federal teams. They also cited hundreds of truckloads of food, water, ice and cots that were lacking during the immediate aftermath of Katrina.
"Quite frankly, we've had a minimal request for some of those quantities," Paulison said.
President Bush said he would ask Congress to consider putting the Pentagon in charge of disaster rescues after military leaders indicated the need for such a national plan -- a politically sensitive proposal for lawmakers trying to avoid trampling on states' rights.
"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?" asked Bush, who visited San Antonio and Baton Rouge, La.
Currently, the Homeland Security Department (search) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency lead response missions in large-scale disasters. If federal armed forces are brought in to help, they do so in support of FEMA, through the U.S. Northern Command. The command was set up as part of a military reorganization after Sept. 11.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said he would not support a system that did not allow local first responders to remain in charge during a catastrophe.
"I don't want the federal government to take over disaster response, believe me," DeLay said from his home in suburban Houston. Asked why, DeLay responded: "Bureaucracy. Bureaucracy. Bureaucracy."
Louisiana's two senators also differed on the issue.
Preparing and responding to storms in the future is "going to take all assets, both civilian and military, to help protect people," said Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu. But Republican Sen. David Vitter said the Defense Department -- not FEMA -- is best equipped to respond in emergencies as massive as Katrina.
The Energy Department said it was cautiously optimistic that Houston oil refineries escaped major damage. Ben Bernanke, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, predicted the economy would weather the damage from the hurricanes and that the fallout would be temporary.
"I remain pretty optimistic about the economy," Bernanke said in a Washington speech. Bernanke expects jobs to take a hit in the short term.
However, he added, "There is of course the direct impact of the shutting down a part of the economy, the loss of several hundred thousand jobs, and reduced energy production in the Gulf."
Crude oil futures fell sharply in unusual Sunday trading as it appeared that oil rig and refinery damage from the storm was less than originally feared. A barrel of light crude for November delivery was quoted at $62.80 on the New York Mercantile Exchange, down $1.40.
But 16 Texas oil refineries remained shut down after the storm, and crews found significant damage to at least one in the Port Arthur area, said Energy spokesman Craig Stevens.
With Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco standing nearby, Bush warned people who evacuated their homes as Rita approached from returning too early. In New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin has said he expects some residents to return to drier parts of the city by Monday or Tuesday.
Blanco, a Democrat who criticized the administration's response to Katrina, praised Bush for smoother federal coordination of Rita relief efforts. She said the state would ask Congress and the Bush administration for nearly $34 billion to improve levees in and around New Orleans and improvements to major highways, airports and seaports that would be used in future evacuations.
In other Rita developments Sunday:
--Navy and Air Force teams flew rescue missions into Texas and Louisiana to search for stranded residents. By morning, military teams had transported more than 2,700 people, including nearly 1,300 patients.
--The Beaumont Federal Correctional Complex lost power during the storm and had to go to emergency generators, said an aide to Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas. The prison has high-, medium- and low-security facilities.