By Jim VandeHei and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 25, 2005
AUSTIN, Sept. 24 -- President Bush was not going to get caught off guard by Hurricane Rita this weekend.
The president who refused to cut short a working vacation three weeks ago to prepare for the fury of Hurricane Katrina was sitting at the U.S. Northern Command post in Colorado on Saturday morning monitoring what had become a more timid storm.
"I've come here," Bush explained, "to watch NORTHCOM in action, to see firsthand the capacity of our military to plan, organize and move equipment to help the people in the affected areas."
Bush's government was on war footing for Rita's arrival: The Pentagon moved 500 active-duty troops to the region and put 27,000 National Guard soldiers on standby. Navy ships were positioned nearby, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose performance immediately after Katrina symbolized the federal government's mistakes, sent in helicopters, supplies and rescue teams.
"It comforts me knowing that our federal government is well-organized and well-prepared to deal with Rita," said Bush, who also devoted his weekly radio address to federal preparations for the hurricane.
Bush's posture toward Rita contrasts sharply with the days after Katrina. Then, Bush was preoccupied with Medicare, the Iraq war and getting back to his Crawford, Tex., ranch to finish up a month-long hiatus from the White House. He was seen strumming a guitar at an event in California as New Orleans was filling up with water flowing through breached levees.
It was not until several days after Katrina smashed into New Orleans and destroyed parts of that city that Bush made a serious effort to present a commanding presence over what would become one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history. Eventually, Bush was forced to offer a rare apology for his government's sluggish response to a storm that has left more than 1,000 dead.
When Rita was approaching, the storm appeared to be packing the same fury as Katrina. The White House communications team scrambled to find an appropriate setting for Bush to monitor preparations for the next great storm, initially settling on San Antonio, where search-and-rescue teams were stationed in anticipation of Rita.
But the plan hit a glitch -- the search-and-rescue team needed to get closer to a storm whose path was shifting to the north and east and could not wait for a photo-op with the president. As a result, shortly after Bush had said his stop would not be an inconvenience to preparations, he was forced to scrub the event. Instead, he flew straight to Colorado Springs, where he would monitor the hurricane from the U.S. Northern Command, which is responsible for the defense of the United States.
In the end, Bush was prepared for a storm that, while serious, had lost some of its fury by the time it hit the Gulf Coast. As the president prepared to leave Colorado, Rita had been downgraded to a tropical storm, and residents of cities such as Houston and Galveston were breathing easier after being spared a direct hit. Major damage was elsewhere, and Rita continued to threaten parts of four states with heavy rains and flooding, but when Bush arrived here Saturday afternoon, the weather was sunny and hot.
Whether the president's aggressive approach to Rita can offset damage to his image is a question of vital interest to his advisers, but several analysts said Bush will need more than a good performance with this storm to turn things around.
"There is a tendency for current news to supplant old news, but the hit he took on Katrina, coupled with the hits he's taken on other areas -- the war, Social Security -- is a heavy load for this current hurricane to lift, even if he does really well," said Bruce Buchanan II, professor of government at the University of Texas.
Thomas D. Rath, the Republican national committeeman from New Hampshire, said Rita cannot erase what happened during Katrina, but coming so quickly after the first storm, the second has given Bush an opportunity to show that Katrina was an aberration.
"What they can do is demonstrate they can learn when things didn't go so well, their attention is focused, he's engaged and in the game," Rath said. "The performance to date on this one certainly indicates that. The worst thing that could have happened would have been for it [the sluggish response] to happen again."
Even before Rita made landfall early Saturday, Bush and the federal government were aided by a close working relationship with state and local officials in Texas such as Gov. Rick Perry (R) and Houston Mayor Bill White. For Katrina, the relationship with New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) was more acrimonious.
Texas officials appeared well prepared for Rita, despite problems that plagued the evacuation of the Houston area on Thursday, and federal emergency officials showed they, too, had learned the lessons of Katrina.
At an afternoon news conference here, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) praised Bush. "The president is hands-on and knows what's going on," he said. "The president is a take-charge type of guy."
Paul C. Light, a government professor at New York University, noted the improved performance by FEMA and the readiness of state and local officials in the areas affected by Rita, but said that, because Rita appeared to be less devastating than Katrina, Bush might gain little no matter how effective the response.
"Without being at all insensitive to the damage, this is not the hurricane that would redeem George Bush's standing as a bold leader," he said. "From a political standpoint, I don't think that it helps him very much," he said.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush had a larger purpose for the weekend's events: to spend more time investigating whether Congress should increase the federal role in responding to catastrophes. A decision has not been made, but aides said Bush is moving in that direction.
The president concluded his day by meeting with state emergency response officials here and spending the night in San Antonio, where he is expected to make a brief stop or two Sunday morning before flying to Baton Rouge and then returning to Washington.
"I know for a lot of people in this state, it's some miserable times," Bush told officials at the Texas emergency operations center. "I hope you can take some comfort in knowing there's a lot of people, like the people in this room, who are working overtime to save you and to help you."
But if Bush was looking for a memorable moment, such as the one after Sept. 11, 2001, when he stood atop the rubble of the World Trade Center towers in New York with a bullhorn, that did not happen. The closest he got on Saturday was a photograph at the military base commemorating that Ground Zero moment, to which the president scrawled, "God Bless America."
Balz reported from Washington.