WASHINGTON — President Bush is skipping the Republican National Convention on Monday and will travel instead to Texas to meet with emergency workers and evacuees as Hurricane Gustav bears down on the Gulf Coast.
After a briefing Sunday from Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, Bush urged residents to heed local officials’ order to evacuate.
“Do not put yourselves in harm’s way or make rescue workers take unnecessary risks,” he said. “And know that the American people stand with you. We’ll face this emergency together.”
Bush said he had been assured that New Orleans’ levees are “stronger than they have ever been,” but that there is a “serious risk of significant flooding” across the Gulf Coast, especially in that city.
“The message to the people of the Gulf Coast is this storm is dangerous,” he said.
The White House had announced earlier Sunday that Bush and Vice President Cheney would skip the convention’s opening day. First lady Laura Bush still was scheduled to address delegates in St. Paul, Minn., on Monday, the opening day.
No Louisiana trip for now
Bush said he would travel instead to Austin, Texas, and San Antonio to meet with emergency workers and evacuees and check on preparations. He said that for now he would not go to New Orleans. “I do not want my visit to impede in any way the response of our emergency personnel,” Bush said. “I hope to be able to get to Louisiana as soon as conditions permit.”
He said state and federal emergency officials already were preparing for the worst and that meals, water, cots, blankets and doctors had been put in ready position.
The president spoke after his Homeland Security chief warned that Gustav could prove more challenging than Katrina and the nation’s disaster response coordinator worried about New Orleans’ fragile levees.
Bush got an update on the storm, which could make landfall along the Gulf Coast as early as Monday, during a visit to FEMA headquarters. At a briefing, Bush sat next to agency director David Paulison and watched a live briefing from the National Hurricane Center’s director on a large video screen on Gustav’s track and strength.
Video: McCain on RNC and Gustav In a telephone call to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Bush said he was “checking in and getting ready to go through this again with him,” spokeswoman Dana Perino said. Nagin told Bush the forecast did not look good, but that he was pleased so far with the coordination with the federal government.
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Nagin told Bush that residents were heeding the evacuation notice, roads were full and the elderly were getting the message to leave, Perino said.
The White House was working on possible alternatives that would allow Bush to make a speech at the convention, Perino said. But Cheney is to leave Tuesday on a four-country trip that includes a stop in Georgia.
McCain heads to Mississippi
GOP presidential candidate John McCain, along with his wife, Cindy, and running mate Sarah Palin intended to travel to Jackson, Miss., on Sunday at the invitation of Gov. Haley Barbour. They were to receive a briefing at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
Ahead of the storm, Bush pre-emptively declared states of emergency for Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama. The declaration clears the way for federal aid to supplement state and local efforts and formalizes coordination.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Paulison have visited the region to monitor developments; Chertoff was returning there Sunday. Chertoff, who planned to remain in Baton Rouge, La., for the duration of the storm, said coordination among response officials was much better than it was during Katrina.
But he acknowledged some shortcomings so far, including buses that had yet to arrive at evacuation points and last-minute decisions by hospitals to move critically ill patients out of the storm’s way.
With New Orleans’ mandatory evacuation getting under way, internal government briefing documents obtained by The Associated Press on Sunday said Louisiana was short 750 buses needed for evacuation. Chertoff said school buses were expected to fill in for the contract buses that had not appeared and that the Canadian military was lending planes to help evacuate hospital patients.
“This is probably the case with almost any emergency, which is as soon as you make contact with the enemy, the plan starts to suffer some alterations,” Chertoff told reporters at Andrews Air Force base before his departure. He said reports that some Louisiana residents apparently have decided to ride that storm out in their homes “strikes me as exceptionally foolish.”
Gustav is “going to be, in some ways, more challenging than Katrina,” Chertoff said.
Paulison, in a broadcast interview, said Gustav “will test parts of the levee that were not tested during Katrina.” The Army Corps of Engineers have made those levees stronger since Katrina “but there are still a lot of vulnerabilities. This could be a a much worse storm. Hopefully, it won’t be, but the possibilities are definitely there.”
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