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 Home > News & Policies > August 2005

For Immediate Release
August 31, 2005

Press Gaggle with Scott McClellan
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Andrews Air Force Base, MD

11:09 A.M. EDT

MR. McCLELLAN: All right, let me give you an update on the President's morning. The President did participate in a video conference with federal officials. And let me tell you who all was on the video conference call. The President was on the video conference, obviously, here from Crawford. Joining him from Crawford were Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and Deputy National Security Advisor J.D. Crouch, and Secretary Card was on the video conference from Maine. He is returning back to D.C. today, as well. The Vice President was on from Wyoming. Back in Washington, at the White House, you had Secretary Chertoff and Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson. You also had Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend, Claude Allen, who is overseeing the White House Task Force, Dan Bartlett, and other staff was on, as well, back in Washington. And then in the region, you had Mike Brown, Under Secretary Mike Brown, participating in the video conference.

The meeting began with an operational update from Mike Brown. Mike -- well, they discussed the options for an evacuation of the Superdome in New Orleans, and the people that have been -- that were moved there originally. They also discussed the issues relating to the flooding going on in New Orleans, and Mississippi, as well. And Mike talked about the work going on to fix the breaches in the levees. And so there's a good bit of discussion about what they were looking at doing for the levees, to fix the levees, and they're working with the Corps of Engineers in that regard.

They also talked about the security situation. As you're all aware, marshal law has been declared in Mississippi and Louisiana. And they talked about the National Guard response to that, as well. And then they talked about the coordination of the response efforts within the federal government. And the President wanted to make sure that Mike was getting all the cooperation he needed from all the different agencies within the federal government on the ground. And Mike expressed that he was getting good cooperation within the federal government.

The President -- and then the President talked during the meeting about really two areas that he was focused on -- one, the immediate, urgent needs on the ground, and how the response and recovery efforts are going, and making sure that we're doing everything within our power in the federal government to help support the state and local efforts.

Obviously, you have a large number of people that have been displaced, that are likely to be displaced for a long period of time. And that was the second area the President really wanted to make sure that we're focused on, and that is continuing to develop a long-term strategy for addressing the issues involved here, particularly the displacement of people.

And they also talked about the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the loans or the exchanges of oil to address the disruption in the supply.

Let's see. Just so that you all know, I think a couple of things that might be of interest to you all, just so you can know what the federal government is doing and how we're responding. In terms of the operational aspects, I think you should look at it this way: Secretary Chertoff is in charge of overseeing the operational side of things from Washington, D.C. Under Secretary Brown is in charge of overseeing the operational aspects from the region. And then you have the White House task force, which is really more of a -- it's really a coordinating body, and it's not an operational body. And that's being overseen by Claude Allen, who is head of the Domestic Policy Council.

And the President, this afternoon, when we get back, as you are aware, will be chairing a meeting of that task force. He will receive a more specific update on some of these areas that I just mentioned. At the end of that, we will have pool coverage.

Oh, a couple of other things, too. As you all are aware, Secretary Chertoff declared this an incident of national significance, which means that the national response plan that we have developed has been activated. This is the first time it's ever been activated. It's really there for major disasters or emergencies that really overwhelm state and local resources, and require coordination across the federal government to help the state and local efforts that are going on. And it enables us to really fully mobilize all agencies within the federal government under the Department of Homeland Security, under his oversight.

I think that's it.

Q There really are some pretty grave concerns about the future of New Orleans, and as you know, it's one of the country's great cities. What can the President say to provide some sort of comfort or reassurance about the future of New Orleans and the rest of the region, of course, too?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think part of it is what he has been saying over the last couple of days. Our thoughts and prayers are with all those in the affected communities, those who have been displaced. This is a very difficult and trying time for people in the communities, and the President is focused, first and foremost -- and this is one of the things he discussed in the meeting, as well, was making sure that right now we're focused on saving lives, and a close second to that is sustaining life. The first priority is saving lives, and right after that the priority is sustaining life.

There are a lot of people that are in need right now, and the federal government is making sure that from our standpoint we're prioritizing what the most urgent needs are, and there are search and rescue teams in the area, there are medical assistance teams in the areas to make sure that we're focused on that priority of saving lives. Then in terms of sustaining life, that means making sure that we're getting supplies and equipment to those who need it, including water, ice, generators, meals and things of that nature.

Q Are you planning an emergency supplemental to help pay for this? Is that something that you guys are right now crafting?

MR. McCLELLAN: Oh, I think that they're -- I know that there is discussion that is ongoing on that. And, certainly, I would expect a supplemental is something that is going to be needed in a situation like this. Obviously, you want to first assess what the needs are, and make sure you have a good idea of what those needs are. There's money available for the urgent needs right now, and resources available. But this is a major catastrophe, and we are certainly going to do everything from the standpoint of the federal government to make sure that the needs are met as best we can from our standpoint. This is going to require ongoing coordination and cooperation with state and local authorities.

Q Scott, this declaration of an incident of national significance, is that just a bureaucratic declaration, or is there real clout there?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I mean, this was part of the national response plan we developed, I believe it was back in -- finalized back in 2004. I'd have to double check that. You could double check with the Department of Homeland Security. But like I said, this really enables us to -- or the Department of Homeland Security to pull together all agencies -- all the relevant agencies to fully mobilize our resources and coordinate under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security. So it does have some important significance.

Q CNN is saying Friday is the day for the President to go down there.

MR. McCLELLAN: There's nothing final at this point. There continue to be some discussions where, obviously, as you heard from yesterday, from Governor Barbour, we don't want to do anything that would be disruptive of the immediate needs that people are trying to meet. We want to make sure that the urgent needs are being met, that the assistance is getting to those who need it right now. And so we're still in some discussions with governors and officials in the area about when would be an appropriate time for the President to come and visit. I do expect it will be the latter part of the week. Whether that's Friday, Saturday, I just couldn't tell you at this point. We haven't made a final -- we haven't made a decision, just because we're still in discussion with those officials.

Q How important do you think it is for him to make that appearance? I mean, what does it provide for the people down there, for him to go?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think this a time when all Americans really need to come together and do all that we can to support those who have been -- those in the Gulf state region that have been impacted by this natural disaster. This is, I think it's becoming clear to everyone, that this could well be the worst natural disaster in our nation's history. And we hear stories about neighbors helping neighbor, people helping to rescue their neighbors who have been trapped, and people helping seniors who aren't able to move around as freely as they would like, help to rescue them.

So this is really a time for people to come together. And the President is going -- will visit the region on behalf of the American people to get a first-hand look at the ongoing response and recovery efforts, as well as to hear from people on the ground -- those who are involved in the response efforts, as well as those who have been impacted by it.

Q Any point in flying over the region today on the way back? I mean, is that something that was discussed?

MR. McCLELLAN: We'll keep you posted. I may have more to update you on here, shortly.

Q Is the President planning on addressing the nation involving this or any other energy --

MR. McCLELLAN: Someone told me about a Drudge report this morning, and I think if you look further down in that report, at least I was told that it had another anonymous administration official disputing the claim. I don't know where that came from, so I don't know what that's about. This is a time when charitable organizations that help with relief efforts are in need of more resources, and the American people -- there are a lot of ways for the American people to help. And this goes back to Jennifer's question. There are a lot of ways for the American people to help, and it's also a time, like I said, to really just come together and support the ongoing efforts there. But I think some of those agencies, like I know the Red Cross has been urging -- saying what their needs are really are donations, more than anything, so that they can get more resources into the area and help.

Q Has he talked to anybody in the region, any governors or mayors or senators, today?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't believe so. I know that Secretary Card this morning, in addition to speaking with Mike Brown even before this video conference meeting, spoke with the mayor of New Orleans. And he's been -- I know Secretary Card has been in touch with other officials. I think that from the President's standpoint, it's the video conference, but I'll double check with him when he gets here.

Q How long is that video conference?

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me double check the time.**

Q Would you say the President goes back to Washington well rested?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, as you all know, this has been, as usual, a fairly busy month. There are a lot of important priorities going on, and we -- here in Crawford, we have the Western White House. I mean, the White House just picks up and moves with the President. And he has kept a pretty busy schedule this month, and he has also remained focused on a number of important priorities for the nation.

Q Does he need a vacation?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think those of you who travel with the President recognize that this is not what you would call a vacation. This is the President's home, he always enjoys coming here. But when you're President, you're President 24/7. And he always enjoys returning to Texas, he always enjoys getting out and traveling around the country and hearing from people out in the heartland, and what's on their minds.

Q Okay, thanks.

MR. McCLELLAN: Okay, thanks.

** The video conference lasted approximately half an hour.

* * * * *

MR. McCLELLAN: Okay, just to update you on the flyover. He was -- you'll have the still photos that will go out from the stills that were up there, you'll have pictures of him. But he was sitting up in the -- on the left side of the plane, the front part there, where the Secret Service detail usually sits, and looking out at all the hurricane damage along the Gulf coast region.

He spent about 35 minutes there, in that seat. Some White House staff joined him different parts of it, from Karl Rove to J.D. Crouch, to myself. One of the Air Force pilots came down and was telling them where -- which cities and communities we were passing over.

It started with, as you all saw, with New Orleans. And we can see -- and the President was pointing out some of the different structures within the town, like the Superdome. You could see the skin of the roof peeled back from the storm. In different parts we saw some helicopters that I guess were involved in some of the search and rescue efforts off in the distance.

Then we saw a lot of the real devastation after we passed some of that downtown area. Even in the downtown area you could see the highways where they just disappeared into the water. And then we got into some of the neighborhoods that were really devastated, and you could see the water all the way up to the roofs. The President, when we were passing over that part of New Orleans, said, "It's devastating, it's got to be doubly devastating on the ground." And he pointed out some of the neighborhoods that I just mentioned, and pointed out -- there's a shopping mall, I think it was, we were trying to figure out what it was, and we thought it was a shopping mall that was under a lot of water.

Q "It's devastating, it's got to be doubly devastating on the ground."

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes. And then we came up on -- after we passed New Orleans, and I think we passed Slidell, then it wasn't too far after that when we were in Mississippi that we came upon communities that -- where the houses were just totally destroyed. The President made a comment saying, it's totally wiped out, when he looked down at this one community, where you can see the homes that were just in pieces.

Q Do you have a name on that one?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I don't. It was a small community, just not too far past Slidell though.** And just some homes where there was just nothing but slabs left.

Q In Mississippi, right?

MR. McCLELLAN: Mississippi, that's correct. There was a bridge that had been wiped out. The President pointed out this one church that was still standing, but all the homes around it there were completely wiped out. There's a causeway we saw that was in pieces that the President pointed out.

Then in Gulfport you could see some of the casinos that had been damaged, you could see some boats that were across like a highway in this one part. We saw -- when we were over, I think it was Keesler, we could see some C-17s that I guess were -- cargo planes that were brining in supplies, I guess, to the area.

Q Where was that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Keesler.

Q Do you have the spelling?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll get someone to double-check the spelling for you. I don't know. I just made a note of it. We came over Biloxi, Pascagoula. That's really -- that's the readout.

And then there were some thunderstorms in the area, so we were going around Mobile, for some -- I think there were some thunderstorms somewhere in the area.

Q So he didn't see Mobile?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, we didn't really see Mobile.

Q Do you know how low we were?

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me double-check that.

Q Especially around New Orleans --

MR. McCLELLAN: We started off about 5,000 feet. I think we were able to get a little bit lower. But the pilots on Air Force One were just -- they were in close communication with others on the ground to make sure we weren't in any way disrupting what was going on there, in terms of the response and recovery efforts.

Q As far as you know --

MR. McCLELLAN: I know we had, initially going in we had clearance of 5,000 feet we would be fine, and we wouldn't be in the way in any sense, and then we were going to check as we got closer. But I'll double-check that and let you know.

Q I think we were lower than that.

MR. McCLELLAN: It seemed like we were lower. I know they weren't going to go below 2,000 feet.

Q When he was governor of Texas, did he ever see anything like this? Has he ever --

MR. McCLELLAN: He did. I wasn't working for him at the time, but I know he certainly has toured damage. I don't know, when you say, "anything like this," I don't know about this, because as I said earlier, this is becoming clear to everybody that it could be the worst natural disaster in our nation's history. Just how widespread the damage is and the devastation, we just don't know about how widespread the loss of life was.

Q Was he surprised by anything in particular about the scope of it?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think when we were looking at it, it was more the President and staff kind of pointing out different communities or neighborhoods, structures, as I mentioned. There wasn't a whole lot of conversation going on. I think it was very sobering to see from the air, and I think at some points you're just kind of shaking your head in disbelief to see the destruction that has been done by this hurricane.

All right. I'll check on the --

Q Scott, can you say if the President requested this fly-over?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President certainly wanted to do it. I think that it had been discussed among the staff with the President, but the President certainly wanted to do it, as long as we weren't going to be disruptive of what was going on in the region.

Q Can you get us the altitude?


** Waveland-Pass Christian area.

* * * * *

MR. McCLELLAN: We were at 2,500 feet for most of the time over the coastline there. When we came into New Orleans we were at 2,500 feet, and then after New Orleans we briefly went down to 1,700 feet, and then we went back up to 2,500 feet for the remainder of it.

Q So it was 1,700 feet was the low, and 2,500 feet was the high?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, that was for a short period of time, is what the pilots told me.

END 1:24 P.M. EDT