Washington President Bush, faced with the prospect of a second monster hurricane striking the still-battered Gulf Coast on his watch, checked in with governors and federal officials Saturday to make sure Washington was doing all it can. He prepared for the possibility of travel to the region and designated two more states eligible for federal help ahead of Hurricane Gustav's landfall.
The president called state leaders in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas in the early morning from the White House before heading out for a 90-minute bike ride, spokesman Scott Stanzel said. Those states are in the potential path of the hurricane, which has been cutting a deadly route through the Caribbean and picked up even more power Saturday, probably en route to a terrifying Category 5 designation.
Gustav crossed Cuba's western tip before moving into the Gulf of Mexico and could reach the U.S. by as early as Monday afternoon. Just three years after Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans, a calamity from which the city still is not nearly recovered, it appeared very likely to get slammed again, by at least tropical-storm-force winds if not worse.
Bush also received regular updates from officials and aides about the storm's path and the government's preparations. He was to receive additional briefings today from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as well as state and local officials and planned to visit the FEMA operations center.
On Saturday, the president asked each governor if the federal government was providing the help they need and pledged "the full support" of his administration, Stanzel said.
Bush praised governors for mobilizing their states effectively to get ready.
"That doesn't mean that everything will be totally smooth," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "We're facing what could be a very strong hurricane, possibly one of the largest and strongest to hit America since records began."
The Bush White House was badly burned by its fumbling response after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005. Bush's image as a strong leader has never entirely rebounded, even though he has labored to improve on the Katrina performance.
On Friday, Bush pre-emptively declared states of emergency for Louisiana and Texas; he added Mississippi and Alabama on Saturday. Such a move is rarely taken before a disaster hits. The declaration clears the way for federal aid to supplement state and local efforts and formalizes coordination. The administration did the same thing before Katrina struck.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Federal Emergency Management Agency chief David Paulison have visited the region to monitor developments, and Chertoff was returning today.
Equipment and people were put in position and safe shelters readied, with cots, blankets and hygiene kits en route.
The military was flying 1,500 civilian critical care patients from Louisiana and Texas to safer locations over the weekend. Some 16,000 other civilians could be flown from New Orleans to Dallas-Fort Worth, according to U.S. Northern Command, based in Colorado.