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Bush Heads to Texas As Rita Approaches Coastal Regions

By Richard W. Stevenson
THE NEW YORK TIMES


WASHINGTON

Under intense pressure to show that he has learned the practical and political lessons of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush planned Thursday to pack his foul-weather gear and head to Texas ahead of Hurricane Rita on Friday, trying to make clear that he is directing an all-out federal effort to cope with the storm.

Bush, who was photographed strumming a guitar in San Diego on the morning that New Orleans was being inundated by flooding 23 days ago, appeared intent on ensuring there would be no off-message pictures this time and no question of where his attention was focused.

“Officials at every level of government are preparing for the worst,” Bush said Thursday morning, adding they were working together “to respond swiftly and effectively.”

Until now, Bush has stayed away from disaster zones until the worst is past, out of concern that his presence would be a distraction. But after criticism for a less than hands-on approach immediately after Katrina devastated the Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana coasts, Bush’s flight plans, barring a change in the storm’s path — include a Texas stop on Friday for a look at preparations before the forecast arrival of the hurricane early Saturday.

He then plans to fly to Colorado Springs, the White House said, to ride out the storm at the headquarters of the Northern Command, where the forecast is for partly cloudy skies and a high temperature in the 70s.

There as commander in chief/weatherman in chief, Bush can watch the hurricane progress from the operations center, where oversight of the military response to crises within the United States is managed. It is at an airfield just across town from Cheyenne Mountain, where the military once monitored the Soviet Union for nuclear missile launches.

Asked whether Bush’s advance work in Texas, pre-hurricane, was anything more than a photo-op, Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said Bush “wants to go and be able to see some of the preparations that are under way” and thank police, fire, medical and other emergency personnel who are assembling to deal with the storm.

“He is the president, and as he indicated to you all, it is his responsibility when it comes to the federal government’s role in these hurricanes,” McClellan told reporters, alluding to Bush’s statement last week that he had ultimate responsibility for any federal failures in dealing with Katrina.

In briefings, the White House, the Homeland Security Department and other agencies said the federal government was acting on multiple fronts and suggested the goal was a more coordinated, comprehensive and aggressive response to Rita than it mustered for Katrina. Bush spoke to Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. The Federal Emergency Management Agency poured equipment and supplies into the area, including gasoline to head off a possible fuel shortage. The Pentagon prepared to deploy thousands of active-duty military personnel if necessary for relief and rescue efforts.

Rita, bearing down on Texas as a Category 4 storm with winds of 150 miles per hour, presented a critical test to Bush, FEMA and the rest of the federal government little more than three weeks after Katrina devastated New Orleans.