Bush Monitors Hurricane Relief Operations
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Hurricane Rita was a second chance for federal authorities to demonstrate they know what they're doing in a storm. It was also a second chance for President Bush to demonstrate his concern. He spent the weekend monitoring the hurricane and NPR's David Greene followed along.
DAVID GREENE reporting:
For a president who wanted to focus all his time and energy on a hurricane, it turned out to be a pretty sunny weekend. Mr. Bush arrived Friday at the US Northern Command in Colorado Springs on the eastern edge of the Rockies. According to the White House, Mr. Bush was determined not to get in the way of relief operations by landing with his entourage in a hurricane zone. Still in response to criticism of his handling of the last hurricane, aides made sure he was at the center of at least some of the action.
After Rita made landfall, the president flew from Colorado to San Antonio. He arrived on a gorgeous Saturday evening.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: It's good to be back here. Proud of my fellow Texans and proud of the people of San Antonio.
Unidentified Mayor: Boy, am I glad to have you here, Mr. President. Thank you for being with us.
Pres. BUSH: Thank you, Mr. Mayor. Thank you all.
GREENE: The president spent Saturday night at Randolph Air Force Base outside San Antonio. It's the staging ground for the military's Joint Task Force Rita where the president spent much of Sunday morning in a briefing with military generals. They told the president about problems that existed in the response to Katrina. In what was described to Mr. Bush as a train wreck in New Orleans, a distress call would come in from somewhere in the city and five helicopters from different agencies would show up to rescue one person. Afterwards, Mr. Bush, who was speaking in a conference room at the base, said he's considering whether he will call for the military to take control during a major national crisis.
Pres. BUSH: Clearly in the case of a terrorist attack, that would be the case. But is there a natural disaster, which of a certain size that would then enable the Defense Department becoming the lead agency in, you know, coordinating and leading the response effort, that's going to be a very important consideration for Congress to think about.
GREENE: Mr. Bush didn't address the broad implications of handing authority to the military over state and local officials. In a carefully managed weekend, the White House seemed eager to show the commander in chief as a leader contemplating that move. The White House took the unusual step of inviting reporters into military briefings with the president. What reporters heard was uniformed military officials describing, with precision, how they were responding to Rita. This was Navy Captain Brad Johanson back in Colorado.
Captain BRAD JOHANSON (US Navy): The Iwo Jima and the Tortuga are right behind the storm coming in. The Shreveport is finished near refueling will be in position as well. What General O'Dell postured to move Marines ashore as early as tomorrow morning as needed to back up the ground forces.
GREENE: Part of the point of this weekend, of course, was for the president to try to regain his political footing after the criticism over Katrina and to try to erase the memories of the sluggish federal response to the devastation in New Orleans. The White House didn't seem eager to talk about whatever problems may have existed in the response to the new hurricane. When reporters on Air Force One asked spokesman Scott McClellan about the evacuation in Houston that snarled traffic on interstates for miles, his simple answer was that evacuations are a state responsibility.
David Greene, NPR News.
INSKEEP: Hurricane Rita spared the massive oil and gas plants along the Gulf Coast. Only three refineries in Texas and Louisiana are reporting any damage. That news sent energy prices down in a special Sunday trading session and today in markets in Asia. Still, 16 Texas oil refineries are closed and it will take a couple of weeks to get them up and running again. And that means the price of gas and home heating oil are likely to keep on rising.
If you'd like to find complete coverage of Hurricane Rita and Katrina, you can go to our Web site, npr.org.
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