WASHINGTON — Eager to avoid the public pounding he got for his response to Hurricane Katrina, President Bush pledged on Wednesday to be “ready for the worst” as another big hurricane headed for the Gulf Coast.
Across the federal government, officials were advertising the Bush administration’s stepped-up response plans for Hurricane Rita as it swept across the Gulf of Mexico toward the Texas coastline.
Bush pleaded with people in the region to comply with mandatory evacuation orders issued in New Orleans and Galveston, Texas. And he said that federal, state and local governments are in close coordination on the preparation.
“I urge the citizens to listen carefully to the instructions provided by state and local authorities and follow them,” Bush said in a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition. “We hope and pray that Hurricane Rita will not be a devastating storm but we got to be ready for the worst.”
Hundreds of truckloads of water, ice and ready-made meals arrived Tuesday at locations in Rita’s path and rescue and medical teams were standing by. “I think we’re going to be ready when it does hit land,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff promised.
A military cargo plane evacuated 25 patients from the Florida Keys, and more than 2,000 National Guard troops were put on active-duty alert to assist as Rita slammed into the string of islands and headed west, perhaps toward Texas.
FEMA urging early evacuation
R. David Paulison, the newly appointed director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said if people don’t evacuate before the arrival of Rita, which hit Category 5 strength on Wednesday, they could be out of reach of help.
“We know that there is going to be a period of time before help gets to you,” Paulison told reporters in Washington. “So you need to make sure you have your family’s plan in place, your evacuation plans in place. Make sure you have food, water, medicine, all the things you need to survive for a couple of days on your own.”
Paulison evaded reporters' questions concerning how his agency handled Katrina and the discrepancy between the level of preparedness for the two storms.
“I'm dealing with what we can do for Texas right now,” he said. “We're going to go back very carefully with what happened with Katrina, but now's not the time to do that.”
FEMA, Texas officials in regular contact
He expressed confidence in Texas' ability to deal with Rita and said FEMA communicates with local officials and emergency workers “almost on an hourly basis to make sure they have what they need to do their job.”
Helicopters are set up to move disaster teams into position, he said, and the military has 2500 hospital beds available if necessary.
Appearing on CBS’s “The Early Show,” Chertoff declared, “Ever since Katrina we’ve been reloading our resources.” He said federal officials are working very closely with their counterparts in Texas.
In an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Chertoff said, “The lesson is that when the storm hits, the best place to be is to be out of the path. ... There’s plenty of (advance) notice about Rita.”
Preparations much better for Rita
Democratic critics said the preparations for Rita seemed to exceed those for Katrina, and called anew for an independent panel to investigate why.
“It’s nice to have the Bush administration recognize the importance of a federal response to Rita, but why weren’t they proactively mobilizing and organizing like this for Katrina?” said Rebecca Kirszner, a spokeswoman for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
“These are the questions that need to be asked by an independent commission,” Kirszner said.
The supplies, rescue teams and military support arrived as President Bush declared a state of emergency in Florida.
In his speech, Bush reiterated that “we’re going to stay as long as it takes” to help the communities battered by Katrina recover.
“It’s an opportunity to bring new life to neighborhoods that were suffering before the storm,” he said.
Education fees waived
On Wednesday, Bush signed legislation allowing the Education Department to waive requirements for repaying Pell Grant and other federal student grants for students forced to withdraw because of the disaster. He also signed a measure to extend certain welfare programs, expiring at the end of the month, and give states more funds and flexibility in spending money to address the needs of families affected by Katrina.
He promised a big role for the federal government but, with conservatives’ alarm growing at the fast pace of disaster spending, promised to “make sure your money is spent wisely.” In his speech to the Republican Jews, Bush also pledged to keep focused on fighting terrorists.
“They’re the kind of people that look at Katrina and wish they had caused it,” Bush said.
The majority of response aid for Katrina was deployed after Bush declared an emergency in Louisiana on Aug. 27, Homeland Security Department officials have said.
Those supplies — meals, water, ice, cots, blankets — began arriving in Gulf Coast states on Aug. 28, the day before Katrina struck, and several days worth of sustenance also was dispatched to the New Orleans Superdome as the storm blew in. But flooding that followed Katrina prevented additional supplies from getting into the city, Homeland Security officials have said.
Troops mobilizing to respond to Rita
Pentagon officials also moved to get out front of Rita. An estimated 319,000 National Guard troops nationwide were available to respond to Rita should the need arise, the Defense Department said. About 1,100 National Guard troops from Texas who had been serving in the Katrina-ravaged region returned to their home state to be available for duty if Rita strikes there. Several Navy amphibious assault ships were deployed offshore to assist relief efforts in Rita’s wake.
By comparison, 10,000 National Guard troops were dispatched across the Gulf Coast three days before Katrina’s landfall, numbers that peaked at 50,000 Guard members and 17,000 active-duty military scattered across Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
The Navy directed its hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, to the Katrina-battered coast on Sept. 2, four days after that hurricane hit. The ship was still in the region Tuesday and poised to help response operations for Rita.
Paulison said the federal response to Rita would depend “much more heavily” on the Pentagon and the National Guard than it did initially for Katrina. But he said the biggest difference in comparing the government’s response between the two storms would be stepped-up communications among state, local and federal authorities — which was riddled with problems when Katrina hit.
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