- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2008

Bush administration officials, sensitive to Friday’s anniversary of Hurricane Katrina falling just days before the Republican National Convention, said Thursday that they will be far better prepared than they were three years ago if a pair of tropical storms turn into the Gulf of Mexico this weekend.

“We feel we are more ready this year than we have ever been before,” said Rear Adm. Brian Salerno, Coast Guard assistant commandant for marine safety, security and stewardship.

The National Hurricane Center is predicting that Tropical Storm Gustav will become a major hurricane after it enters the warm waters of the Gulf. Tropical Storm Hanna formed behind Gustav Thursday morning.

Gustav is expected to reach landfall at 8 a.m. Tuesday, the second day of the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and will serve as a reminder that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 killed more than 1,000 people in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast and that the Bush administration’s response was widely criticized as inadequate and too slow.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry canceled plans to attend the convention, and rumors were rife in Minneapolis that the McCain campaign was considering putting off the event for two days.

But New Jersey Republican National Committee member David A. Norcross said that delaying the convention would be a “pretty hard thing to do,” given all the scheduled business Monday and Tuesday. “There’s the keynote speech. You can’t cram all that in two nights of sessions. I don’t know how you do that.”

South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson agreed, saying a natural disaster is one thing but “a storm? I think not.”

On Thursday, multiple federal and state entities, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), announced aggressive preparations in an effort not to repeat their public relations disaster of Katrina.

In a sign of a lesson learned, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal secured 700 school buses to assist commercial buses in case an evacuation is called. One photograph of hundreds of school buses left behind to flood rather than used to rescue tens of thousands of stranded residents haunted New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s administration for months after Katrina.

Buses that can evacuate 35,000 people were within 500 miles of New Orleans and began arriving Thursday. Parish-by-parish evacuations could begin as early as Saturday.

“We have worked hard over the last two years to be ready for the next big hurricane, and Gustav will be it,” said Harvey Johnson Jr., deputy FEMA administrator.

The Coast Guard is moving its personnel and cutters into the Gulf and out of the way of the storms so that it can lead search and rescue efforts afterward.

The Red Cross is helping identify shelters for what it estimates could be as many as 10,000 people in New Orleans alone. The Red Cross also has developed a Web site for residents to register and let family and friends know of their whereabouts, and that they are safe.

Up to 65,000 National Guardsmen are available in Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, and 3,000 have been activated to respond to areas affected.

The New Orleans levy system is in the process of an overhaul. Bill Irwin with the Army Corps of Engineers said vulnerabilities remain but that officials are working around the clock to install temporary flood walls and other protections.

“They system is stronger and better than it was prior to Katrina, but this is a work in progress and won’t be completed until 2011,” Mr. Irwin said.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Thursday met with Mr. Jindal in Baton Rouge and visited the emergency operations center in New Orleans, where they met with Mr. Nagin.

“We continue to remind Gulf Coast residents about the importance of taking precautionary measures to prepare for an emergency situation or evacuation before Gustav approaches our shores,” said Russ Knocke, Homeland Security spokesman.

Mr. Hallow contributed from Minneapolis.

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