Trying to burnish his government's reputation for handling a stormy crisis, President Bush said Wednesday the response to Hurricane Gustav has been "excellent" and praised improvement since Hurricane Katrina.
"Phase one of the response to Gustav went very well," Bush told workers in a packed emergency command center here. "A lot had to do with the people in this room. We're much better-coordinated this time than we were with Katrina."
The president said much work remains, though, particularly given the toll the storm took on power lines.
Torrential rains and the threat of tornadoes in the wake of Hurricane Gustav slowed attempts by utility companies to rebuild the broken transmission and distribution systems that have left nearly 1.2 million customers without power. Utility giant Entergy Corp. reported more than 740,000 outages in Louisiana.
New Orleans and Baton Rouge were particularly hard hit.
Bush urged utility companies in neighboring states to send extra manpower to Louisiana if they could spare it.
"One of the key things that needs to happen is that they've got to get electricity up here in Louisiana," Bush said. "There's a lot of folks from the states that are working hard to restring the lines."
The president is on his second trip to the region since the storm hit. He was in Texas on Monday, with a satellite-fed White House speech to the Republican National Convention sandwiched between visits.
Different response than three years ago
His quick, hands-on reaction stood in contrast to his administration's bungled response three years ago to Katrina, a far more devastating storm than Gustav turned out to be. The slow response to Katrina helped tatter the credibility of the Bush administration in the public's mind.
From his motorcade, Bush spotted plenty of downed trees and street signs on a windy day. He also saw damage from above as Air Force One neared landing.
"All and all, the response has been excellent," Bush said. "But the people here understand that there is more work to be done."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said he won two promises from the federal government that will ease his state's recovery: the White House approved his "major disaster" declaration request, allowing residents of 34 parishes to receive federal funding for housing and recovery, and a strategic oil reserve will be opened to help reverse a severe shortage of fuel, particularly in south Louisiana.
Bush said his administration would be willing to release more oil form the emergency reserve upon request.
Earlier, from his plane, Bush called New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and received a briefing from David Paulison, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"Baton Rouge got hit pretty hard," Paulison told reporters on the plane. "They got hit worse than New Orleans did. There's obviously no power. A lot of trees are down, windows blown out in buildings, roofs gone."
Paulison warned residents against returning to their homes before city services are up and running.
Evacuees begin to come home
The first of the 2 million people who fled Gustav began to trickle home Tuesday from shelters, many grumbling about the wait for the all-clear. Some evacuees, particularly in Texas, on the far fringes of the storm's path, suggested authorities overreacted in demanding they leave their homes.
Emergency officials, however, strongly defended the decision to evacuate coastal areas, saying it is better to be safe than sorry. That lesson was driven home by Katrina, which killed 1,600 people in 2005.
Officials noted that New Orleans' levees held, and Gustav struck only a glancing blow. But when trees fell on homes, power lines went down and roads were washed out, there were few people around to get hurt. There was significant damage: Early insurance industry estimates put the expected damage to covered properties at anywhere from $2 billion to $10 billion. That's high, but well short of Katrina's $41 billion.
More tests of the nation's hurricane preparedness may already be in the queue. Three storms were lining up in the Atlantic Ocean, with Tropical Storm Hanna leading the way.