Bracing for a storm that could surpass Hurricane Katrina, President Bush on Sunday said he would skip the Republican National Convention and head instead to Texas to be with evacuees and emergency responders. He warned a jittery Gulf Coast
that it could face "significant flooding."
"The message to the people of the Gulf Coast is, this storm is
dangerous," Bush said bluntly after a briefing on Hurricane
Gustav's path and power. "There's a real possibility of flooding,
storm surge, and high winds. ... Do not put yourself in harm's way,
or make rescue workers take unnecessary risks."
The president's quick change of travel will put him in the
region on the very day that Gustav was expected to slam into the
United States. The swift, hands-on level of engagement comes three
years after his White House was blistered for a sluggish response
to Hurricane Katrina. The legacy of that debacle helped shape
Bush's move also shows the vastly changing tone of the
Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn., where presidential
candidate John McCain has said Gustav will now take precedence.
The National Hurricane Center said Gustav weakened slightly but
was expected to regain strength as it moves over warm waters toward
the U.S. coast, possibly becoming a top-scale Category 5 hurricane
later Sunday. Forecasters upgraded a hurricane watch to a warning
for a swath of over 500 miles, from Louisiana near the Texas border
to the Alabama-Florida state line.
Bush has had a visible role in responding to disasters in
person, especially after Katrina, but heading to the site even
before the storm hits is highly unusual. The president sought to
assure the nation that the federal government was ready this time
and working well with state and local leaders.
"There's a lot of preparations that have gone in in
anticipation of this storm," Bush said. He has called governors,
declared emergencies in the likely impacted states, talked to the
New Orleans mayor and thanked emergency workers for their long
hours. He made the comments after a briefing at the Federal
Emergency Management Agency headquarters.
The agency's director, David Paulison, told reporters a few
hours after Bush's visit, "I think we are showing that we are
ready for this storm. I can't stop the damage from happening and we
can't stop the storm from coming in. What we can do is be ready as
possible, making sure we're ready, the states are ready and the
local communities are ready."
Bush said local leaders should get "everything they need from the federal government to prepare for what all anticipate will be a
difficult situation." As for the people of the battered Gulf
Coast, Bush said: "They've made it through great challenges in the
past and they're going to make it through this one."
Still, he was also careful not to be rosy.
Even though the president said levees are "stronger than
they've ever been," he said people throughout the Gulf Coast,
especially in New Orleans, "need to understand that in a storm of
this size there is serious risk of significant flooding."
Bush planned a Monday visit an emergency operations center in
Austin, Texas, to inspect coordination among all levels of
government. He also planned to go to San Antonio, where relief
materials are being stored up and people who fled the storm's path
have found shelter.
Bush said he was not traveling to Louisiana immediately because
he did not want to interfere with emergency workers, but hoped to
get there soon.
The president had planned to give the showpiece speech of the
night on Monday, the start of the Republican celebration. Vice
President Dick Cheney, who also planned to speak at the Republican
convention on Monday, was not going, either. First lady Laura Bush
still planned to speak.
Bush is still considering taking part, perhaps by video feed. If
so, the tone and content of his comments will surely change given
Earlier on Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff
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.
Katrina was the most destructive natural disaster in U.S.
history. It swamped the beloved city of New Orleans, killed more
than 1,600 people across the Gulf Coast, destroyed hundreds of
thousands of homes and caused billion of dollars in damage.
Bush phoned New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on Sunday and 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.