- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 25, 2005

President Bush, stung by accusations that he responded too slowly to Hurricane Katrina, yesterday traveled to Texas hours after Hurricane Rita slammed ashore to monitor relief operations.

“Our federal government is well-organized and well-prepared to deal with Rita,” Mr. Bush told reporters in Colorado before flying to Austin, Texas. “We’ve got teams on the ground, beginning to analyze the situation and prepare the necessary response.”

Last night, the president issued a statement declaring major disasters in Louisiana and Texas.

The declaration makes both states, local governments and some private nonprofit groups eligible for federal assistance, including grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other disaster relief.

In Washington, officials said Rita, which made landfall near the Texas-Louisiana state line around 3 a.m. yesterday, was not nearly as devastating as Katrina, which struck Louisiana and Mississippi on Aug. 29.

“The damage is not as serious as we had expected it to be,” R. David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told reporters. “The evacuations worked.”

Still, Mr. Bush said places like Lake Charles, La., “got hit hard” by Rita. He cautioned residents who evacuated not to return home too soon.

“It’s very important for the citizens who have headed to east Texas to understand that even though the storm has passed the coastline, the situation is still dangerous because of potential flooding,” the president said. “Listen carefully to the local authorities about whether or not it is safe to return.”

Mr. Bush spent Friday night at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, home of U.S. Northern Command, and used the base as a command post to monitor Rita’s arrival early yesterday. The president later flew to Austin and met with emergency workers for his home state in an underground bunker.

“The people of the state are counting on you,” he told the workers. “Nobody asked for these things, but when they come, we have a duty.

“I’m really here to let the folks in Texas know that the federal government knows we have a responsibility to support you in the mission of saving lives first and foremost and then helping rebuild their lives,” he added.

Mr. Bush said one reason officials do not want evacuees to return home yet is that they would exacerbate highway congestion that already was making it difficult for nurses to get to Houston hospitals.

“For those who feel like you need to get back to a city like Houston, it’s important that you delay your trip so that essential personnel are able to get to the affected areas,” Mr. Bush said. “I know for a lot of folks in the state, it’s a miserable time.”

FEMA, which was widely criticized for its response to Katrina, fielded 1,000 rescue workers to aid victims of Rita, helped coordinate getting food to those taking refuge in a Tyler County, Texas, shelter and provided water to a Beaumont hospital.

The military swiftly dispatched troops and amphibious vehicles to the stricken region, left behind by 3 million evacuees. Large swaths of southwest Louisiana, including parts of U.S. Interstate 10 and other major highways, were flooded.

Mr. Bush said he took comfort from watching the military “plan, organize and move equipment to help the people in the affected areas, in this case, Louisiana and Texas.”

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said coordination among levels of government was much better this time than for Katrina.

“But we’re still not out of the woods,” Mr. Cornyn told the Associated Press.

He said highway tie-ups like those that confronted residents Friday as they left the area could be just as bad as they begin to return.

Five hundred soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division headed to Lafayette, La., about 135 miles west of New Orleans, to help with search-and-rescue efforts, division commander Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell said. About 3,200 of his soldiers would be prepared to go to Lafayette by today if needed, he said.

Military briefers said 17,000 active-duty military and 36,700 National Guard personnel are in the areas affected by the two hurricanes.

Navy ships that had been anchored off New Orleans and were sent to sea to avoid Rita were heading back yesterday to position themselves about 50 miles off the coast of Port Arthur, Texas.

The president left Austin to spend the night in San Antonio, a staging ground for federal supplies and personnel. After two stops in Texas today, he was scheduled to travel to Baton Rouge, La., before returning to Washington. No details about the stops were disclosed.

• This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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