Emergency officials 'optimistic' about Gustav evacuation
By Deb Riechmann
The Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. — Buffing his administration's reputation for handling hurricanes, President Bush viewed toppled trees and downed power lines in Louisiana on Wednesday and declared that the government's response to Hurricane Gustav was "excellent" - much better than during Katrina.
It was Bush's second trip this week to the region affected by Gustav, which lashed the Gulf Coast on Monday, but proved less destructive than Katrina in 2005. While Bush focused on Gustav recovery, more tests of the nation's hurricane preparedness were queuing up in the Atlantic Ocean with Tropical Storm Hanna leading the way.
"All and all, the response has been excellent," Bush told workers in a packed emergency command center. "But the people here understand that there is more work to be done."
The nearly 2 million people who evacuated the region before the storm hit have started making their way home, yet power outages abound in Louisiana and water and sewage has not yet been restored to all parishes. Torrential rains and the threat of tornadoes trailing Gustav slowed utility companies' work to rebuild broken transmission and distribution systems that left more than 1 million customers without electricity.
Bush's motorcade passed a cemetery littered with tree limbs, chain-link fences flattened by powerful winds, darkened traffic lights and electrical workers fixing a power pole the storm had snapped. Fields were flooded and lawns were squishy. The president didn't see even heavier property damage reported in other areas of Baton Rouge, which had virtually escaped damage from Katrina. His motorcade didn't stop during the tour, and he didn't get out to walk around to view the destruction or visit residents in their homes.
No other hurricane-related events are on the president's schedule for the rest of the week. He is to spend the next two days at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, far from the spotlight of the Republican National Convention where the party is nominating John McCain to head the GOP ticket in November.
"One of the key things that needs to happen is they got to get electricity up here in Louisiana - get moving as fast as possible," Bush said at the command center, noting that some workers there appeared sleep-deprived. "The governor understands it's a problem. His team understands it's a problem. And I understand it's a problem."
He urged utility companies in neighboring states to send extra manpower to Louisiana to help restring power lines. Bush also said he and state and federal officials were not just focused on New Orleans and other big cities, but were aware of the need to help get water, meals and ice to rural parts of the state experiencing post-storm flooding.
"Phase one of the response to Gustav went very well," Bush said just before rain began to fall again on the city. "A lot had to do with the people in this room. We're much better-coordinated this time than we were with Katrina. State government, the local government and the federal government were able to work effectively together."
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 from the emergency reserve upon request, a decision that prompted criticism from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. She accused Bush of being beholden to big oil companies. Pelosi said that for months, the president has ignored bipartisan requests from Congress to release oil from the nation's stockpile to help ease gasoline prices.
Aboard Air Force One bound for Baton Rouge, 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 Rogue got hit pretty hard," Paulison told reporters on the plane. "They got hit worse than New Orleans did."
Paulison warned residents against returning to their homes before city services are up and running. He said residents who are given the OK to return should bring along enough food and water to sustain them and their families for a few days.
Some evacuees, particularly in Texas where Bush visited other emergency operation centers on Monday, suggested authorities overreacted in demanding they leave their homes. Emergency officials strongly defended the decision to evacuate coastal areas, saying it is better to be safe than sorry.
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That lesson was driven home by Katrina, which killed 1,600 people in 2005, compared with at least 16 deaths attributed to Gustav so far. Still, Gustav caused 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.