AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - President George W. Bush warned on Monday the danger to the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Gustav was not over as he sought to assure Americans his administration had learned the lessons of the botched handling of Katrina in 2005.
“This storm has yet to pass. It’s a serious event,” he said at a briefing with emergency officials in Austin, after Gustav hit the Louisiana coast but spared Katrina-battered New Orleans its full force.
Bush, who flew to Texas after scrapping plans to go to Minnesota to address the Republican National Convention on Monday, insisted, however, that coordination of the emergency response to Gustav was “a lot better” than during Katrina.
Bush’s hastily arranged visit to the region kept him well inland from Gustav’s strong winds and lashing rains even as it weakened to a Category 2 hurricane before making landfall on the Louisiana coast west of New Orleans.
But the 3 1/2-hour trip underscored Bush’s determination not to be seen as out of touch, as he was widely viewed when Katrina devastated New Orleans three years ago, leaving a stain on his legacy and hastening his slide in popularity.
Bush’s fellow Republicans prepared to open their convention in St. Paul on Monday to nominate John McCain as their presidential candidate. McCain, mindful of the political damage from Katrina, ordered toned-down festivities to avoid any hint of insensitivity to storm victims.
With less than five months left in office, Bush was taking pains to show Americans he was deeply engaged in the biggest test of the government’s revamped hurricane response capabilities since Katrina.
“What I look for is to determine whether or not assets are in place to help, whether or not there’s coordination and whether or not there’s preparation for recovery. So to that end, I feel good,” Bush said at an emergency operations center in the Texas capital.
Bush praised the hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents who heeded warnings and left their homes before Gustav hit. “It’s been a huge evacuation,” he said.
At an equipment staging area at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio before heading back to Washington, Bush said: “Nobody’s happy about these storms. Everybody’s praying for everybody’s safety. And I’m confident that after the storm passes and there’s a human need, it’ll be met because of the generosity of the American people.”
Determined to avoid past mistakes, Bush had quickly ordered top officials to the region, trying to erase memories of the sluggish Katrina response symbolized by his oft-ridiculed remark to then-disaster chief Michael Brown, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Brown was later relieved of his job.
Bush canceled plans to travel to St. Paul to headline the opening of the Republican convention, and then took the unusual step of heading for sites near the storm zone even before Gustav had made landfall.
He had been widely criticized for taking too long to visit New Orleans after Katrina hit three years ago, and his administration was accused of bungling the initial response by taking days to evacuate stranded residents.
Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by David Alexander and Peter Cooney
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