August 31, 2005

Bush off to Washington to oversee hurricane relief

CRAWFORD, Texas (Reuters) - President George W. Bush headed
back to Washington on Wednesday, cutting short his vacation to
oversee the federal response to Hurricane Katrina ahead of an
expected visit to devastated Gulf Coast areas later this week.

Following a video conference with senior government
officials, Bush left his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and was
flying back to the White House to monitor the massive recovery
effort after Katrina cut a swathe of death and destruction
through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

When Bush arrives, he will lead a meeting with
representatives of 14 federal agencies involved in the recovery
and cleanup, including the Departments of Energy, Interior and
Health and Human Services.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush stressed to
the federal officials that "right now we're focused on saving
lives. Right after that, the priority is sustaining life."

The Pentagon on Wednesday added warships, including two
helicopter assault vessels and the hospital ship Comfort, along
with elite search units to the relief effort. Energy Secretary
Samuel Bodman said the administration would release supplies
from the federal petroleum reserves to help refiners affected
by the hurricane.

Although aides have long said that Bush can run the White
House from his 1,600-acre (650-hectare) ranch where he has full
secure communications capabilities, the president decided it
was better to return to Washington, according to McClellan.

"There are people who are suffering, who are in need,"
McClellan said. "The issue was the president felt it was best
to get back to Washington to oversee the response efforts from
there." Bush had been scheduled to end his month-long vacation
on Friday.

One of the most severe storms ever to hit the United
States, Katrina killed more than 100 people with the toll
certain to go higher as authorities struggle to count the dead,
save low-lying New Orleans and tally the catastrophic
destruction. Analysts have estimated the damage to be at least
$26 billion.


Bush is expected to visit the ravaged Gulf Coast region
later this week, perhaps on Saturday. The White House is
sensitive to the disruption presidential visits can cause and
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour advised them to hold off on
coming too soon because the destruction was so widespread.

Administration and congressional officials are working to
assess what will be needed in federal aid.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency already has $2.5
billion on hand from last year's appropriations. In addition,
$2.14 billion has been requested for fiscal year 2006 that
starts on October 1.

Congress could consider a supplemental appropriation.
Lawmakers approved $13.6 billion for hurricane aid last
October, most of it for Florida, which was hit by a series of

The U.S. military weighed in with major assets as the Army
Corps of Engineers worked to help civilian engineers in New
Orleans close a major break in a protective levee that flooded
the tourist city two days after Katrina ripped ashore.

More than 8,200 part-time National Guard troops have been
mobilized by governors in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and
Florida for duties from police work to providing water and
electric generators.

The big Navy hospital ship Comfort was preparing to depart
Baltimore and the helicopter carrier USS Bataan and another
warship were already conducting rescue missions from off the
Louisiana and Mississippi coasts.

The USS Iwo Jima, another helicopter assault ship, was
preparing to sail from Norfolk, Virginia, with three other
vessels and arrive in five days, the Navy said.