LAKE CHARLES, La. — President Bush got a firsthand look Tuesday at Hurricane Rita’s damage to U.S. energy resources in the birthplace of the modern oil industry. “This area’s hurting,” he said.
Bush then took an hour-long helicopter ride over the debris-strewn communities along the Texas-Louisiana border where Rita blew ashore. The worst was the Louisiana port town of Cameron, where most structures were wiped out.
The Marine One helicopter circled the town so the president could get a complete look, then flew south over the ocean to fly by an offshore oil rig. He also flew over flattened and flooded homes, hundreds of downed trees and dozens of wandering, stranded cows.
Bush was briefed on local response to the storm before his ride lifted off from the Beaumont, Texas airport. He got another report from Louisiana officials after landing in Lake Charles.
Bush said his priorities were to assist people with food and water, restore power and provide fuel. “We fully understand that it’s hard to maintain order if you don’t have fuel for your cars and first responders,” the president said, standing alongside Texas Gov. Rick Perry in Beaumont.
He said the military and government leaders he met with are trying to help people get their lives back together. He urged evacuated residents not to return home until local authorities say it’s time.
The area that Bush toured is home to several oil refineries that turn oil into gasoline, many of which were knocked out of power by the storm.
Emergency stockpile release
Bush said the government stands ready to release fuel from its emergency oil stockpile to alleviate high prices. And he suggested he would name a federal official to oversee the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast — after local officials first produce a vision for their rebuilt communities.
Bush has asked America to conserve gasoline by driving less and has directed federal workers to cut back on unnecessary travel. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the president has directed the White House staff to conserve energy by adjusting thermostats, shutting down computers, faxes and copy machines after hours, using public transportation or car pools and reducing nonessential travel by relying more heavily on video conferencing.
“If it makes sense for the citizen out there to curtail nonessential travel, it darn sure makes sense for federal employees,” Bush said. “We can encourage employees to car pool or use mass transit, and we can shift peak electricity use to off-peak hours. There’s ways for the federal government to lead when it comes to conservation.”
The White House also will be looking at ways to conserve, McClellan said, although that didn’t include curtailing the president’s travel plans. Tuesday marked the president’s seventh trip to the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of two devastating hurricanes in less than a month.
Bush returned Sunday from a three-day trip in which he stopped in four cities that have been a base for government response to the storm. As he has in most of his previous trips to the areas hit by the hurricanes, Bush spent most of the time in meetings with state and local officials — many of them reporting by videoconference.
On Saturday, in a visit to the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., some of Bush’s briefers were linked from the White House situation room steps from the Oval Office.
Still, McClellan said it is important that the president get a firsthand look at emergency operations and lift the spirits of workers there.
“I know the president’s visit yesterday to the joint field office in Baton Rouge was very much appreciated,” McClellan said. “You saw the enthusiasm from all those who have been working 24/7 to help the people of the region rebuild their lives and recover.”
Bush's huge fuel expenditure
The president’s entourage is designed for speed and the ultimate in security, not for fuel economy, so every movement he makes outside the White House consumes an enormous amount of fuel. The arrangements are dictated by the Secret Service, whose mission is to protect him.
Bush has asked that his motorcade be scaled back, his spokesman said, and it was slightly shorter than normal upon his arrival in Texas. The multiple-vehicle caravan carried Bush from his presidential jet to a nearby airport terminal for his meeting with Texas officials.
Sixteen 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 Department spokesman Craig Stevens.
The U.S. holds nearly 700 million barrels of oil for emergencies in four underground salt caverns along the Gulf of Mexico.
The Big Hill site near the Texas-Louisiana border sustained “minor damage” from Hurricane Rita and the status of another at West Hackberry in Louisiana is uncertain because access roads are flooded and preventing access, according to Energy Department officials. The two other sites sustained no damage.
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