Bush Visits Texas, Reinforces FEMA's Reliability

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President Bush surveyed damage done by Hurricane Rita in Texas Tuesday. Thousands of residents are without power and he encouraged those that have been displaced to look to FEMA for help.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Asked for reaction to the hearing, the White House said the president is not interested in finger-pointing. Privately, White House officials have pointed fingers at local and state officials. But in public, the president was joined by Louisiana's governor as he toured communities devastated by Hurricane Rita. Here's NPR's David Greene.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

The president walked off Air Force One in Beaumont, Texas, where late September felt like being inside an oven. The heat index has been as high as 106 degrees, and that has government officials concerned, with more than 700,000 Texans still without power. After meeting local mayors and other officials inside an airport terminal without electricity, Mr. Bush came outside and stood next to the man who has his old job in Texas, Governor Rick Perry.

(Soundbite of press conference)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The state of Texas took precautions before the storm hit, and now we're responding, and our job is to work with the state. I have the top people here with me. The Coast Guard admiral's in charge of the federal response. I had the head of FEMA with me. I had a three-star Army general here, all of them here to help make sure these people can get their lives back together.

GREENE: Mr. Bush then flew in his Marine One helicopter over towns and rural communities that hug the Texas-Louisiana border. He saw some of the worst damage flying over Cameron Parish, Louisiana. There he saw vans submerged several feet into mud, houses blown apart, trees on a golf course mown down and tumbled across fairways. After the hourlong tour, Marine One touched down in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Mr. Bush went into more meetings with area officials. Usually a presidential visit would be blockbuster news in a city of 70,000, but Jeremy Harper, a 26-year-old reporter for the local paper, the American Press, said Rita made getting any news out difficult.

Mr. JEREMY HARPER (American Press): Most of our staff is evacuated to the outlying areas. We only have a skeleton crew in right now, and it hurt our newsroom pretty badly. We have a hole in the roof, we have standing water.

GREENE: And they had a printing press that was too damaged to print newspapers. So Harper has been gathering information and reporting it on an Internet blog the newspaper set up. To keep his laptop charged, he's been using the cigarette lighter in his car. He said the White House Advance Office found his number in the phone book as they searched for a local reporter. Harper said he was determined to be on this story.

Mr. HARPER: It's difficult, you know. I mean, we just got the call late last night that he might be coming, and we were told to prepare. You know, we haven't showered in a couple days. Not the best situation to cover the president.

GREENE: Mr. Bush finally emerged from a building at the airport in Lake Charles and walked to the microphone with Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Pres. BUSH: I understand there's a lot of frustrations for the people who left this part of the country. The people who are scattered around want to come back and see their homes. They want to come back to the communities they love. But it's very important for them to understand that now's not the time to come back.

GREENE: The president ignored shouted questions about former FEMA director Brown. When he did bring up FEMA, he said frustrated residents should turn to the agency for help.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Pres. BUSH: Those who've been displaced, those in the affected areas know that they can call the FEMA number and get a $2,000 check for their family, and that'll help you in your time away from your home. So please call and register. Last night we made the decision that the people affected by Rita will be treated the same way as the $2,000 check that goes to--those affected by Katrina.

GREENE: Until yesterday, the president had not tried to highlight the similarity between the two storms or promise equal federal benefits. But after a day's tour of ravaged rural Louisiana, it was hard to tell the damage from the two storms apart. David Greene, NPR News, Washington.

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