SAN ANTONIO Relieved and upbeat, President Bush declared Monday that the government had responded "a lot better" to Hurricane Gustav than it did to deadly Hurricane Katrina, which obliterated the Gulf Coast three years ago and damaged his administration's credibility for handling major crises.
Eager to show that officials had learned the tragic lessons of Katrina, Bush scrapped an opening-night speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., and flew instead to emergency command centers in Texas. He landed shortly after a weakened Gustav hit Cocodrie, La., 72 miles southwest of New Orleans. Once feared as a monster storm more frightening than Katrina, Gustav struck only a glancing blow on New Orleans.
"The coordination on this storm is a lot better than on than during Katrina," said Bush, who left a hurricane briefing in Austin smiling, shaking hands with emergency workers and posing for pictures.
At each briefing Bush struck a cheerful tone, saying residents were successfully evacuated from the Gulf Coast, rescue supplies were in place and abundant, but that blame was not.
"There was clearly a spirit of sharing assets, of listening to somebody's problems and saying, 'How can we best address them?"' Bush said. "The federal government is very much involved in helping the states. Our job is to assist."
The image of Bush, standing with FEMA Director David Paulison, shaking hands with emergency workers was that of a hands-on president in charge. Three years ago, Bush seemed out of touch and distant from the suffering as he congratulated then-FEMA Director Michael Brown and told him, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." Brown later resigned amid criticism of his agency's performance.
Bush's first look at Katrina was from an Air Force One flyover of the Gulf Coast in 2005. The storm killed nearly 1,600 people, wiped out 90,000 square miles of property and wreaked billions of dollars in damages.
Katrina helped tank Bush's job approval across the nation. His trip Monday to a Texas Emergency Operations Center in Austin, about 400 miles west of Gustav's direct path, and the Alamo Regional Command Reception Center in San Antonio served to blur the image of Louisiana residents stranded on rooftops of homes flooded by Katrina.
Gustav slammed into the heart of Louisiana's fishing and oil industry with 110 mph winds, but delivered only a glancing blow to New Orleans, raising hopes that the city would escape the kind of catastrophic flooding caused by Katrina, which was a bigger storm when it came ashore.
The nearly 2 million people who left coastal Louisiana on a mandatory evacuation order watched TV coverage from shelters and hotel rooms hundreds of miles away. Levees in New Orleans have survived Gustav so far, but parts of southern Louisiana remain in grave danger, federal emergency management officials said Monday.
Paulison told reporters on Air Force One traveling to Texas that unlike during Katrina, help was deployed ahead of the storm, significantly easing evacuations. Everyone in New Orleans who wanted to evacuate could have, Paulison said. "There should not be any excuses," he said. "If people stayed in New Orleans, it was their choice."
"It's been a huge evacuation," Bush said. "It's hard for a citizen to pull up stakes and move out of their home and face the uncertainty that comes when you're not at home. And I want to thank those citizens who listened carefully to the local authorities and evacuated."
Later, at another command center in San Antonio, Bush made a plea for Americans to help support recovery efforts by donating to relief agencies.
"Nobody's happy about these storms," he said. "Everybody's praying for everybody's safety, but I'm confident that after the storm passes and there's a human need, it will be met because of the generosity of the American people."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency had cartons of food, water, blankets and other supplies to sustain 1 million people for three days ready to be distributed Monday.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told The Associated Press that he could not remember a time when FEMA was juggling so many major disasters at once. Besides Gustav, FEMA is dealing with Hurricane Hanna, more than a dozen major uncontrolled fires across the country, flooding in eastern and northern Florida and heavy precipitation predicted later this week over the panhandle and southern coast of Alaska.
Gustav dominated cable television coverage, stealing attention from a presidential nominating convention that Republicans had planned as a four-day adrenaline boost for nominee-in-waiting John McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Yet while Gustav dampened the revelry in St. Paul, it also gave McCain an opportunity to further distance himself from the unpopular incumbent, who now has no plans to attend the convention.
McCain spent Monday at a disaster relief center in Waterville, Ohio, helping pack cleaning supplies and other items in plastic buckets being sent to the Gulf Coast. Rather than a keynote address or other political oratory, the convention programmers gave McCain's wife, Cindy, and first lady Laura Bush top billing to make televised appeals for help for hurricane victims.
"Mistakes were made by everyone" at all levels of government in the handling of Katrina, Mrs. Bush said Monday on CNN. "The lessons that were learned from Katrina can serve the United States very well in any kind of disaster."
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama scaled back Labor Day speeches to unions on Monday and urged hundreds of thousands of supporters to donate to the Red Cross to help hurricane victims. Obama finished his Labor Day campaign schedule with stops in Michigan and Wisconsin, two battleground states the campaign views as possible wins, before heading home to Chicago to monitor the situation and decide his schedule for the rest of the week.