print-only banner
The White House Skip Main Navigation
In Focus
News by Date
Federal Facts
West Wing

Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
September 25, 2005

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

2:37 P.M. EDT

MR. McCLELLAN: All right, good afternoon. I just wanted to stop by and provide you an additional update on the President's day. I know you saw some of it, but I wanted to give you a little bit more, and then answer any questions you might have on the day.

First of all, let me start with the first briefing this morning, in the Joint Task Force Rita briefing at Randolph Air Force Base. You all were there for the first part of it. After you all left the room, some of the commanders there provided an additional update. They talked about the ice and water and generators that they were deploying into the region, both Eastern Texas -- Northeastern Texas and the Louisiana area. They said they were continuing to focus, obviously, on saving lives being a priority, but focused on debris removal and roofing issues and doing damage assessment. They talked about how the -- one of the commanders talked about how they were coordinating closely with Joint Task Force Katrina. Power was a top priority, getting that power back on. And that's why the generators were such an important priority. They talked about how they had these generators, obviously, that were large enough to power major facilities and power hospitals, and that that was a priority area. And they talked about the distribution points that they had set up to support the relief efforts and sustain life.

The President got an update on some of the initial damage assessment; a lot of it is very preliminary at this point, because in some areas they may have had to wait until they were able to get into there because of the wind, and the strength of the wind, and so forth. But they talked about some of the major facilities and talked about the Sabine River and the flooding concern that they had there, but they had started a process about four days ahead of the storm to release water from reservoirs in the area to help alleviate that concern, and the report the President got was that they weren't seeing any major flooding from the Sabine River area.

Q From the Sabine River?

MR. McCLELLAN: That they were not seeing any major flooding from the Sabine River area. And one thing I'll come back to a little bit later in the second briefing, one of the concerns yesterday was that the hurricane was going to stall as it got into northeastern Texas, and it did not; it kept moving. And I think that by the time we had the second briefing, it was either north of Shreveport or already in Arkansas by that point.

One of the commanders talked about the National Response Plan, and how it's been working pretty well in this instance. They have done a lot of practicing and rehearsing of it. They talked -- the Coast Guard gave an update on the oil and hazardous materials situation. They talked about New Orleans, and the concern about the water there. I'll come back to that, because he got more in the second briefing on that.

The Coast Guard gave an update on some of the parishes. The President was asking about the parishes, and how the -- the Coast Guard commander there gave an update that it was well coordinated, they had good marshaling points in those parishes. But there were, obviously, some areas that received significant damage. They talked about the good preparations and organization that Texas had in place, as well, the Joint Task Force Rita, that is, and how they worked very closely with them. He got an update on the medical infrastructure.

He received an update on the Iwo Jima and the Tortuga, where they were positioned and how they were positioning off the coast of the Louisiana/Texas border area, to support General Clark and Honore. And they had Marines on board that ship, as I mentioned yesterday, that were ready to deploy as needed. I think they were still assessing the situation and determining what might be needed, in terms of support from those Marines.

General Clark, toward the end, there was a little bit more discussion about the role of the military in extraordinary circumstances, which the President alluded to in his remarks this morning. General Clark talked about how the federal government can bring in overwhelming assets, if needed, and quickly get them in there. The President talked about how he had been at Northern Command, and how -- the President talked about how the Northern Command is an impressive operation.

And he touched on -- he touched a little bit more on what he talked about to you all, about one of the things we need to consider is, is there a trigger that comes into play in the event of a catastrophic event or an extraordinary situation like a catastrophic event, where the Department of Defense would need to come in and help, really, to stabilize the situation, because the Department of Defense, as you heard the President say, is the one organization that has the logistics and the communications and the assets and resources needed to come in quickly and help stabilize the situation. And if it's a catastrophic five-type hurricane like Hurricane Katrina, one of those instances then, that's something that, as he said, Congress needs to consider.

That's really, I think, pretty much that briefing. On the Joint Field Office in Baton Rouge where we visited, Admiral Allen led that briefing, as you're aware. The Governor joined in, in the briefing. Senator Vitter was there, the Lieutenant Governor was there as well, of Louisiana. And the Joint Field Office, as you saw, that's the federal government's operation there. That is what Admiral Allen is overseeing, is the operational aspect on the ground. Multiple federal agencies and organizations are there, but anyhow, I mean, tens upon tens of federal agencies and organizations that are working around the clock to help respond to Hurricane Rita, but also to continue moving forward on Hurricane Katrina.

The briefing there started with an update from the Corps of Engineers. They talked about the levees and the dewatering or unwatering process that was underway. Initially they showed a comparison of the flooding in New Orleans from Katrina and of course it is a much larger area, and then the flooding because of Hurricane Rita, which was a smaller area; it was just pockets. There's 9th Ward, obviously, is one area where there is significant flooding, and then some other -- a couple other pockets, I think, where there is flooding. And he talked about how the pumps were in place, and they were really speeding up the dewatering process, and they felt good about getting that done over the next several days, getting that water out of there.

He received updates on the Industrial Canal and the 17th Street Canal, and the work to -- the ongoing work on those -- protecting those levees. The Corps also updated about how they're working very closely with local water and wastewater boards on the response.

Then Admiral Allen gave an update on the amount of rainfall overall from Rita. That's where he got an update that it was -- that Rita at that point was either just north of Shreveport or already in Arkansas, and how it had not stalled, but kept moving.

The President asked about the Iwo Jima, where the latest it was. Admiral Allen talked about how General Honore was in Lake Charles, he was already in Lake Charles, which is an area that received, what everybody believes is significant damage. There's some preliminary assessments that they have of the damage, but General Honore is on the ground doing additional assessments so that we can determine what other resources and assets are needed to help move forward on the relief and response efforts. I think Admiral Allen mentioned that the 82nd Airborne was coming in to Lake Charles, as well.

The Governor talked about how not very many people stayed behind for Hurricane Rita, in the area. There was one small community where the Iwo Jima had helped conduct some search and rescue operations, and 30 people were pulled out of that area and now are safely on board the Iwo Jima. The Governor mentioned that and praised those efforts.

They talked about the flooding. The flooding from Rita is -- I guess some of it is probably left over from Katrina, but is all along the Louisiana coastline. It goes much further east than what was expected, and you could see that on the maps that Admiral Allen was presenting. And the President asked about the damage assessment on Lake Charles, and Admiral Allen said that it's -- they just have the initial, preliminary report at this point, that General Honore was there to continue those assessments. They talked a little bit more about the ships and the mission of the Iwo Jima.

He got an update on the oil spill situation. The Coast Guard gave an update, talking about how pre-Rita, I guess it was from Katrina, that they had some 8 million gallons of oil spills that they were working to clean up, and I think they had already recovered somewhat less than 3 million of those gallons, and they were continuing to assess the oil spills from this one, but certainly not on the level of what we saw from Hurricane Katrina.

And then Admiral Allen gave an update on some of the Katrina recovery efforts that are going on, and talked about the debris removal. That's one area the President was asking a lot about, how is the debris removal -- are we accelerating that process. We've got the simple form for the mayors and county supervisors to sign, so that the federal government can go in and help with removal on the private property. And Admiral Allen felt that that was moving along well.

The President asked a lot of questions about how they're going about getting rid of that debris. And that's an issue that they're looking at right now. They've got some intermediate sites where they're placing some of that debris. This is both Mississippi and Louisiana. And they're determining how they -- landfills or incinerators, how they go about getting rid of that debris. That's something they're working now.

The President asked more about the 9th Ward, and the searches that had gone on there; where they were in terms of the progress of doing the searches of all the homes in that area. Admiral Allen gave an update on the amount of commodities that have been shipped in since Katrina, a very significant amount.

They talked about how there have been $2 billion in individual assistance payments that have been provided post-Katrina. And then the President and the Governor talked about one of the messages he emphasized to you all, which was people from the region need to listen to the Governor about when it's safe to return to the region. And they talked a little bit about gasoline supplies, getting the problem with the gasoline -- getting gasoline back into that part of the region, for the needs of people in the region.

And that's really -- and that was the end of his briefing. Then he went around and thanked all the people there, and spoke to you all.

Q What's the next step on this idea of the DOD maybe taking over at certain times if it's a big enough disaster?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, it's something we'll be discussing with congressional leaders, and talking about. The President, as I said yesterday, spent a good bit of time with Admiral Keating and Secretary Chertoff and others at Northern Command, talking about some of these issues. And it's something he believes very strongly that Congress needs to consider. And that's why I emphasized what we're talking about here are really extraordinary circumstances, brought about because of some catastrophic event, whether it's a natural disaster or a terrorist attack or -- I should say, a natural disaster or a terrorist attack of a certain magnitude and scope, or a disease pandemic, like an avian flu outbreak, and you need to mobilize assets and resources and logistics and communications very quickly to help stabilize or contain the situation.

The Department of Defense is really the one organization that has the ability and capability to be able to do that.

Q So would there be a DOD recommendation, or are you just going straight to the lawmakers --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think right now it's something that is in the early planning of discussing it, so that we can move forward and talk to about -- talk to members of Congress about it. It's something that the President believes needs to be considered, as he said.

Q -- those two laws that we were talking about earlier, the posse comitatus and the Insurrection?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you're talking about one area -- that's law enforcement. The President's talking about considering a situation where you need a clear line of authority in the event of a catastrophic event. Right now in the -- I don't know if I want to say "lesser events," but in some of the less significant or less catastrophic natural disasters or terrorist attacks or disease situations, you have a structure in place to work with state and local or first responders, the Department of Homeland Security to respond, and they're prepared -- they have preparedness -- they have the role in terms of preparation and preparedness for that, and then responding to that initially.

But if you have a situation like a Hurricane Katrina, where the state and local first responders are, to a large extent, victims themselves, and somewhat overwhelmed, then what do you do in a situation like that, and should there be some sort of a trigger that says, okay, the federal government needs to marshal a lot of their resources quickly, get in there and stabilize the situation. And it's the Department of Defense that has the capability to do that -- the logistics, the communications, the assets to be able to do it quickly for the initial time period you need to stabilize the situation.

There are a number -- there are legal issues involved, and there are reasons we have these laws in place. It's just something that needs to be considered. It's one of the lessons learned, as the President has talked about, from Hurricane Katrina.

Q Does it take -- would it take an act of Congress to do what the President is thinking about? I think that's what you were saying.

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, that's why he said, Congress needs to consider this, and that he wants to work with Congress to look at how we move forward on it.

Q What would be the role of DHS if you were to do something like this, they would be supporting DOD?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this is the whole -- this goes to the issue of, when you have a catastrophic event like we saw with Hurricane Katrina, there's an issue of, what is the line of authority. And I think in the President's thinking, he wants to make sure there's a very clear line of authority who is going to oversee that response. Right now you have responsibility shared among local, state and federal officials. To a large extent, the federal government is in a role of supporting and assisting the state and local first responders. That's why states and local communities have response plans in place. And the federal government is there to do all we can to assist with the search -- with savings lives and search and rescue operations and sustaining life and providing or helping with the recovery.

Does that answer your question?

Q So, basically, the bottom line is, is that the Defense Secretary would be the new line of command, and control all the operations?

MR. McCLELLAN: It's something we need to consider for the event of -- for any event of a extraordinary circumstance brought about because of some catastrophic event, whether it's a natural disaster or a terrorist attack -- a large-scale natural disaster or a large-scale terrorist attack type situation, or a large outbreak of disease.

Q Currently, under the National Response Plan, it's Chertoff, it's the Homeland Security Secretary that's in charge. So you're -- the idea is to shift it over to DOD.

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, it's in the event of an extraordinary circumstance that we're talking about. It has to be some trigger there for a severe, catastrophic-type event.

Q Is this being done because DHS is just unequipped -- they just don't have what it takes to --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I don't think that's the way to look at it, because the Department of Homeland Security has a very important role to play, in terms of the preparedness and response to events of this nature. It's the situation of a -- the best way to say it is an extraordinary circumstance, a catastrophic event that -- of course we hope we never see another Hurricane Katrina in our lifetime, or a situation like that. This was a storm that covered 90,000 square miles. It was an unprecedented storm that put state and local first responders, who were doing a great job, in a difficult position.

One of the issues that we need to look at out of this is, what role does the federal government play, and is there a point where you need an organization to be able to come in and assume responsibility to help stabilize the situation, and the organization, in the President's mind, that has the capability to do that is the Department of Defense. You all were there, you saw the Northern Command, and the logistics and the communications capability and the assets that they can deploy quickly. The military has those resources to be able to deploy them quickly and help stabilize the situation.

Q Would the states have any say over whether the federal government would just come in and effectively take over some sort of -- you know, the disaster cleanup, or would --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I mean, some of these -- there are some existing powers in place. A governor can certainly request certain things of the federal government, and that's an issue to look at. These are all issues to consider. That's what the President is talking about.

Q But, I mean, other than -- the ideas that he has, is he saying once it reaches some trigger, than automatically the federal government takes over, or does the state have -- is this a mandatory thing for the states?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, that's one of the things to consider, is there -- when you have an automatic trigger that says, okay, now it's the federal government that takes over, and the Department of Defense is the one with the capability to be able to do that, help stabilize the situation. And it's not -- it would be the --

Q At that point, the states wouldn't have any say in it.

MR. McCLELLAN: The Department of Defense would assume the responsibility for the situation, and come in with an overwhelming amount of resources and assets, to help stabilize the situation. And, certainly, we need support from state and local authorities and other federal agencies, as well.

But, again, I just want to emphasize, it's an extraordinary circumstance that you're talking about. We saw an extraordinary circumstance in Hurricane Katrina, and we want to make -- we want to do what we can to prevent something like what happened in terms of the response with Katrina from ever happening again. That's part of the lessons learned. And this is one very important lesson learned that needs to be addressed and needs to be considered. And Congress is the one to consider these issues. And the President -- that's why part of this trip -- and the President was here first and foremost to get a firsthand look at the operations underway. But it was also part of the fact-finding -- it was a fact-finding trip, as well, so that he could look, or see first hand, how -- what capabilities are there, and what response -- what kind of response might be needed in the future.

Q Scott, isn't that, potentially, a very big commitment for the military at a time when they have extensive obligations abroad, and some say they're stretched pretty thin already?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, some may say that, but I think the military has said otherwise. The Department of Defense has discounted that. They're able to meet all their priorities. But, again, in terms of looking at this issue, apart from your question, is that this is something that the President believes needs to be considered, because we all saw what happened with Hurricane Katrina and the response efforts. The President was not satisfied about the results of that response.

And it was a local, state and federal response -- all levels of government had responsibilities. And the first responders and federal officials that were involved in search and rescue and the immediate response and relief efforts were doing all they could, working around the clock to try to help people. And there was a lot of -- certainly the Coast Guard search and rescue teams, and the state and local first responders and authorities were -- in many instances were doing a great job to save lives. But this storm presented us with some unprecedented challenges and some enormous challenges, and it raises the question about how do you address a circumstance like this in the future. And that's why the President spent some of his time on this trip focused on this issue, and he intends to move forward with Congress to consider how we address this in the future.

Q -- any of the victims of the hurricane?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

Q Is he going to meet with any --

MR. McCLELLAN: We'll keep you posted on his schedule. But I suspect he will be returning to the region soon.

Q How come he didn't on this trip?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there are immediate response efforts still underway. There's a lot of damage assessment that's still going on. Certainly in the areas that were hit the hardest, they're still assessing -- doing a damage assessment. There are still some search and rescue operations going on. They're working to get commodities in there. The last thing we want to do is get in the way of the ongoing, immediate response efforts. And that's something we have never done before, and we had no intention of doing on this initial trip to the region. But I expect the President will be returning to the region soon.

Q Tomorrow?

MR. McCLELLAN: We'll be updating the schedule later tonight. He will be going over to -- one event that will be on the schedule -- he's going to be going over to the Department of Energy to participate in a -- chair a briefing on some of the energy issues related to these two hurricanes. And I expect he'll talk to you all after that briefing.

Q Scott, two quick questions. Any other lessons learned?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think one of the lessons learned that the President has already talked about, was discussed in some of these briefings he's received, was that it's important to start the evacuation process early.

You saw in Texas a large amount of people that were -- well over 2 million people, is what Texas and federal officials have updated us on while we were in Austin. And that's an unprecedented number of people who are trying to move, and certainly the -- I think everybody will look at things that worked well there, and things that can work better in the future, and take steps to improve that. But they started that process early. Louisiana was starting it early. And that's one of the lessons learned.

And you heard another lesson learned, that the Air Force general talked about, that they're already -- one of the lessons they've already learned -- that was when he was talking about the air operations for search and rescues. You have a situation where someone calls in the search and rescue operation to -- they need to carry out this one operation, and you maybe had five helicopters being deployed to that one rescue, because you had so many resources surging into the area, air assets, and they were on what the military called visual flight response, meaning that you had so many air assets in the region. And so that's what that Air Force General was talking about, is we need to look at a national plan for that aspect of the operation, to make it's better coordinated, and that you're working in the most effective way to save lives.

Q -- the evacuation, it seems like a lot more people are heading back into Houston, toward Galveston, than according to the plans that the governors and mayors --

MR. McCLELLAN: You mean ahead of when they should have?

Q Right. How does the President feel? It seems like a lot of people are ignoring the advice of the President of the United States, of the Governors of Louisiana and --

MR. McCLELLAN: That's -- it is a concern. It was a concern of both the Governor of Texas and the Governor of Louisiana. And that's why you heard the President reiterate what they were saying, is that we want to make sure people aren't returning too soon; wait until you hear from your state and local authorities to return.

You had, in Texas, I know one of the things they talked about was that there were still assets they had prepositioned they were trying to get into the region, and you had some issues with traffic that -- because people were wanting to get back prematurely. And that's why the President was reinforcing the messages of the two Governors, that -- don't return yet; listen to -- wait until we say it's safe to return. It's an area that the media has, and can help with, too, to help us get that message out to people: it's too early to return, listen to your Governors.

Q One of the problems getting out of Houston, for example, with all the long lines, and that was with notice. Does that mean that we're really not --

MR. McCLELLAN: That was what?

Q With notice, with notice that they had to get out.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, like I said, obviously, they -- this was an unprecedented number of people that were being evacuated. And they got a large number of people out of -- I would think the vast majority, if not all -- almost all of those that wanted to -- intended to evacuate were evacuated. And certainly that -- I think that that was --

Q A radiological or biological attack, there would be no notice. Does that mean that we really can't evacuate --

MR. McCLELLAN: And, obviously, from situations like this, you learn lessons and you look at ways to improve in the future. And everybody understands the importance of assessing how things worked and taking steps to improve in the future.

Q Will the President push for --

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll just point out that evacuations are under the responsibility of state and local authorities, but the federal government is there to assist, and we have assisted in a lot of ways, helping -- I mean, one of -- another lesson learned within the aspect of the evacuation is the special needs population -- the nursing homes, the hospitals, the people with disabilities, making sure that you're focused on that priority area and getting those people out safely, or getting them to a safe place.

And that's something that I pointed out the example of the Beaumont hospital on Friday, when they were able to -- the federal government assisted, but the private sector did, too, and state authorities, go in and evacuate some 3,000 people. There were other instances like that. There was an instance, I think, in a Louisiana hospital, as well -- a smaller number, but they were able to evacuate people.

Q Scott, you mentioned the gasoline shortages. Are you talking about the retail sort of shortages at the gas --

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm talking about the areas that were hit hard, and as people start to return, what we're doing to address that problem of gasoline there in that area. Now tomorrow he'll receive an additional update. But I think Secretary Bodman spoke last week, and talked about the energy sector, and where things stood in the region, and nationally. And one of the areas he talked about was concern about natural gas shortages and how we're working to address that issue.

In terms of -- I think some of the preliminary assessments of refineries and offshore oil rigs from Hurricane Rita was that the -- the preliminary assessments, and I would encourage you to check with the proper authorities, but were that the refineries were okay, that there wasn't significant damage, and that the oil rigs from Rita -- they're still assessing that, but certainly was not as significant as the damage from Katrina.

All right, thank you all.

END 3:08 P.M. EDT