By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008
BATON ROUGE, Sept. 3 -- When President Bush visited the Louisiana capital after Hurricane Katrina, most of New Orleans lay underwater, thousands were stranded in squalor, and his administration was feuding with the state's Democratic governor over who was to blame.
What a difference three years -- and a much milder storm -- can make. Bush arrived in Baton Rouge on Wednesday for his first personal look at the damage wrought by Hurricane Gustav, which leveled trees and knocked out power through much of the state but did not take the human or political toll exacted by Katrina.
During the trip, Bush praised the well-organized evacuation of New Orleans and other major cities in the days before the hurricane. And he took credit for his administration's efforts to work closely with local governments, and a friendly Republican governor, in coping with the storm.
"Phase One of the response to Gustav went very well," Bush said after meeting with Gov. Bobby Jindal and other local and federal officials at the state's emergency operations center. "A lot of it had to do with the people in this room. We're much better coordinated this time than we were with Katrina."
The visit, which lasted about two hours from landing to takeoff, was low-key by presidential standards, mirroring a Monday visit to Texas to see relief workers and volunteers. Bush did not meet with evacuees or other victims on either trip.
The administration's relief efforts also come as national politics is centered squarely on St. Paul, Minn., where Republicans are holding their convention to nominate Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) for president and to cheer their vice presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Bush canceled his Monday appearance at the convention because of the storm, settling for a shortened address via satellite the next night.
Bush arrived in Baton Rouge under overcast skies, flying over flooded fields and swaths of fallen trees as Air Force One descended. His motorcade drove through a mix of neighborhoods battered by Gustav's winds, including streets littered with branches, roofs torn from homes and downed power lines. At one nursery school, damaged equipment littered the playground. The line for a lonely open gas station stretched for blocks.
The visit to Louisiana comes three years after Katrina, which killed hundreds and displaced more than 1 million people amid a federal response that was deemed slow and ineffective. The episode was a turning point for Bush, whose popularity ratings -- waning at the time -- never recovered.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush did not include New Orleans on his itinerary in part to avoid interfering with emergency operations.
"The Emergency Operations Center overseeing the operations for the whole state is in Baton Rouge, so it's the right place to go to be able to do what he wants to do, which is -- get some business taken care of to make sure that they have what they need from the federal side," Perino said.
At the command center, Bush met for about an hour with Jindal, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and other officials. In remarks afterward, Bush said that although New Orleans was affected by Gustav, many rural areas were hit disproportionately hard.
"I understand there's a lot of focus on New Orleans, and there should be focus on New Orleans," Bush said. "But in the briefings today, it is clear that this state is focused, as well, on people who live in rural Louisiana and the smaller towns of Louisiana."
Bush said his administration agreed to Jindal's request to tap emergency oil reserves and "will continue to do that upon request by companies." He did not take questions from reporters at the center.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One before Bush's arrival in Baton Rouge, R. David Paulison, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the government response to Gustav was a notable improvement over efforts for Katrina. Paulison added that federal officials were moving resources into place as Tropical Storm Hanna threatened to hit the southeastern United States.