The White House, President George W. Bush Click to print this document

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
September 24, 2005

Press Gaggle with Scott McClellan
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Austin, Texas

1:33 P.M. CDT

MR. McCLELLAN: Okay, good afternoon, everybody. I wanted to update you on the rest of the President's morning. You all were there for probably about two-thirds of the briefing -- the first briefing this morning that he participated in at NORAD, Northern Command. And you saw some of that.

The top of the briefing was focused on the weather update on the report on the hurricane, and then they went into the operational update, which you saw a portion of that. And they also discussed the coordination and response going on between the military and other federal agencies, as well as the state and local governments. And I'll skip through the first part of it, since you were there.

I think it was after you all left they talked a lot more about the assessment, how they're monitoring the evacuation efforts, and the military is in position to deploy as quickly as requested or needed by state authorities, and how they were continuing to make sure that supplies were positioned and working to make sure they had a good handle on the situational awareness. That was an important role that the military can play, and that's part of the assessing the situation on the ground and providing that support to state and local authorities as well, and first responders.

General Clark gave an update. He is head of the Joint Task Force Rita, based at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio. And he went over how the Joint Task Force was organized and how the coordination was going among the various military services that were involved. That would include the Guard, as well as the active duty, and also how they're coordinating with the state emergency operations center.

And he talked -- he gave an update on the search and rescue operations, and the helicopters that were available, and talked about the area that they were most concerned about. Obviously, the first priority right now is saving lives, and then the priority right there with that is continuing to do the damage assessment. And some of that damage assessment depends on how quickly they can get into an area when the storm is passed, and they're able to move assets into those areas.

And he talked about all the forces that they had ready to deploy, as well. He talked about the ships that were coming in behind the storm, with Marines that would be ready to deploy as needed, and went through the state and local -- some of the state and local response. Talked about how some of the damage assessment they would be doing later today -- be able to do more damage assessment later today. Talked about one of the hospitals that the state was working to evacuate, I think in the Beaumont area -- yes, in the Beaumont area -- and how they were ready to assist, if needed.

Then he got an update from General Honore, who was in Lafayette, Louisiana. He was on by phone. He was not on -- you didn't see him on the video conference. Admiral Allen was also on the -- I think, actually, Ken noted that in his pool report. And General Honore gave an update on the situation in Louisiana, and talked about the assets and resources and troops that they had available.

There was a discussion about Lake Charles. Obviously, Lake Charles, there's concern about the tidal surge that was expected there later, and the significant damage that everybody projects in that area, and talked about how we're focusing a lot of our resources to deploy there if -- as needed.

And then they talked about New Orleans, and the work that was underway there, as well, the work that was being done by the Corps, and done by search and rescue teams and helicopters that were providing relief to -- providing reenforcement to support the levees.

There was, I guess it was in the Lake Charles area, the parish president was on, as well. Secretary Rumsfeld talked for a little bit, and then Chief Paulison talked from FEMA, where he was, and talked about the cooperation that was going on, and how he felt that there was very good cooperation going on at all levels between all the different federal agencies and the military and the Coast Guard and state and local officials, as well.

And one thing that was discussed -- and you heard some of this in the President's remarks -- was the concern about people maybe wanting to return too soon, because one of the big concerns is the rainfall and the flooding that is expected to be coming in many areas. In some areas, it's already happening. And that's why the President was also reiterating that message that citizens in the area need to listen to their state and local authorities and follow their advice, and not return until the authorities say it's okay to return, that it's safe to return, because we are going to have to address the flooding issues.

And that's going to continue as the storm moves up. It's expected to slow down, and there was some discussion about when it's expected to stall and really slow down more, and then move into Arkansas, too, where there's flooding expected to be I think at the early part of the week, when it moves into Arkansas.

Admiral Keating gave a -- talked a little bit at the end. Let's see -- and that's -- I think that's pretty much from that meeting.

After that -- and the President wanted to make sure in the meeting -- he was talking to all those that were involved in the briefing to make sure that we are focused -- we have our focus where -- in the areas most in the need, or that are going to be most impacted by this. That includes the northeastern part of Texas and that western part of Louisiana, which he talked to you all about. So he got an update from people on what they're doing to target those areas and target those resources.

After that, we -- the President did a tour of NORAD and Northern Command. Admiral Keating took him on a tour of different parts. One of the first areas he stopped after the briefing was the inter-agency coordinating group. This -- the inter-agency coordinating group there includes some 50 agencies and organizations. I just noted a few -- I mean, obviously, the Department of Defense, the American Red Cross, the United States Geological Survey, the FBI, FAA, GSA. There are just a number of agencies, and that's where they all work to coordinate our response here to protect the homeland, whether it be natural disasters or possible terrorist threats or other threats to the homeland.

From there -- and then after that one, he went and visited with the intelligence team at Northern Command. He also saw the public affairs team. He visited with the logistical and engineering team there. That's the team that provides all the logistical support or makes sure that all the logistical support is coordinated. And then he visited the director of training and exercises. This is a team of people that -- one of their areas of focus is kind of the lessons learned from events. So he visited with them for a little while about issues of lessons learned.

Then he went and visited -- actually, before he got to -- one thing I wanted to mention, one bit of color for you all here. As he was walking to the next area of Northern Command, we came to an open hallway area, and it was where they have a 9/11 memorial. And they have a lot of photos from all the various sites that were attacked that day.

And it had in the center of the room for the memorial, it had a sign that said, In Memory of Those We Lost. And one of the officers there asked -- there was a picture of the President at ground zero with the firefighter Bob Beckwith, with the bullhorn, and one of the officers asked the President to sign that photo. He signed it, "May God Bless America, George W. Bush." And there were other pictures there, as well, such as the firefighters draping the flag over the Pentagon, the three firefighters hoisting up the flag at ground zero, and just a number of other pictures. But anyway, just one bit of color I wanted to mention.

From there, the President went and visited the situation rooms at Northern Command. And all these visits were really an opportunity for the President to hear firsthand some of what each of these areas is responsible for, and what they're doing, as well as to thank all the troops and others that are there working around the clock for all they do to defend and protect the homeland, because that's their responsibility.

And then after visiting that -- the situation rooms there, the President went to Admiral Keating's office, and he was there for a while, participating in some discussions and briefings. When he first went in there, he spoke with Admiral Allen and got an update from Admiral Allen on Louisiana and the damage assessments that were going on, and the situation with the levees in New Orleans, and the work that the Corps of Engineers is doing.

Then he participated in a briefing with Admiral Keating and some other officers, as well as Secretary -- Secretary Chertoff was with him this whole time, walking around with him, and Secretary Chertoff was there. One of the main reasons the President visited Northern Command was to get a first-hand look at the operations, and how the military and federal government is responding to a major disaster like a hurricane. It's also an opportunity for him to do some fact finding, and do fact finding about how we respond and look at how we might think differently for future catastrophic events.

As you all know, the President was not satisfied about -- in some of the initial response when it came to Hurricane Katrina, and it's something that we're continuing to learn the lessons of. And he's also continuing to think about in the future, about how do we best respond to catastrophic events such as a hurricane like Katrina, or such as a pandemic disease or a possible terrorist attack. And so they had a discussion about the lines of authority, and it's something that the President was very much focused on during that discussion in Admiral Keating's office. And so he was asking a lot of questions. And it gave him an opportunity to get an up-close look at the response efforts and the lines of authority. And this is something that, as he said in his speech, he wants to discuss with Congress, to see if we need to look at ways to approach this differently in the future.

Then from there, he went back to the Joint Operations Center. This is where he was last night -- for an update and a briefing. And this was -- he was in there from about 10:00 a.m. to about 10:45 a.m. At that point, he got the update that the hurricane was now a category one. They talked about how some areas of Texas were receiving like 12 to 14 inches of rain. And he got an update about the rainfall and the flooding potential as the storm moves up that northeast side of Texas, and the western part of Louisiana into Arkansas.

And then, again, they were continuing to update him on the damage assessment efforts that were underway, or that would be underway as they were able to get into areas, and the assets that were positioned and ready to deploy, as needed, as well as the search and rescue operations.

And then at the end, the President spoke to everybody in the Joint Operations Center. This was a large room that was just recently finished, and it has a lot of people in there that are working around the clock. And the President, last night, was there with a different -- many people that were there last night were part of a different shift, and so at the end of the briefing today, the President thanked all these troops and others who were working around the clock for all that they're doing. He talked to them about the importance of what they're doing. He said, "I came here to see first hand how the Northern -- see the Northern Command in action, and to tell everyone that what you are involved in is something that's really important." And he talked about how the Northern Command mission was vital to all of us who are doing our duty to protect the American people.

And he talked to them about -- he talked to them again a little bit about the capabilities of the United States military, and this goes back to the issue of the role of the military in responding to catastrophic events. And the military, as the President knows from previous experience, as well as from seeing in the response efforts here, they're the one organization that really has the capabilities to, and the logistics and communications needed to come in and take control quickly in the event of a catastrophic event. And he talked to them briefly about that.

Then he talked to them about the war on terrorism, and the importance of the mission, and what we're working to accomplish in the global was that we're engaged in.

I think that essentially wraps up the rest of the morning. We also have major disaster declarations that we've received from Texas and Louisiana, so we're working to move forward on those major disaster declarations. They were received earlier today, and I'll keep you updated on that, as needed. And now we're headed to Austin, to visit the Emergency Operations Center.

Q Schedule -- how far in advance are you able to tell us anything?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm going to try to update you here shortly on -- we'll overnight in San Antonio. I expect when we leave Austin and get to San Antonio, I don't think there's anything else public at that point. We'll have some more in the morning. The President will be participating in probably a couple of events in San Antonio. Then I'll keep you posted on the rest of it, hopefully here shortly.

Q Back to D.C. tomorrow?

MR. McCLELLAN: We want to make sure that before we go somewhere that everybody is notified and knows we're coming.

Q Is he going back to D.C. tomorrow night, or is that unknown?

MR. McCLELLAN: The plan is to go back to D.C. tomorrow afternoon.

Q Scott, what was the President's initial reaction, I guess to this response? When he said three weeks ago, that was not acceptable, what did he think today from what he saw?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think you all saw, because you were in the room, the coordination and cooperation that's going on at all levels of government and between all the different agencies. The military has been able to surge a large amount of resources and assets into the region, and have them propositioned. As Chief Paulison said, there's great coordination going on at all levels.

But this is still -- the storm has reached landfall overnight, early in the morning, and there's still a lot of challenges that we're going to have to address, and that's where the President focus is, on what about these 10, 12 counties in the northeastern part of Texas and the areas around Lake Charles, Louisiana; are we on top of these areas, from the federal government standpoint, ready to provide all the assistance we can in positioning things, or positioning our assets in a way to make sure that we can get in there quickly, as needed.

Q Does he believe so far -- how are the results so far?

MR. McCLELLAN: Everybody -- again, you all were in there, and heard that the coordination is going well between all levels of government. And it's important to continue that coordination and to make sure that we're doing everything we can to assist. So in that sense, he's -- he received good reports from all our officials who are in the various areas of responsibility.

Q Is it too soon to judge results?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

Q Too soon to judge results?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, the flooding is still a really big concern, and the storm slowing down, and the amount of rainfall that's still hitting the region. So I think right now the focus needs to remain on the operational response efforts. And that's where the President is keeping the focus.

Q Did he tell anyone they were doing a fine job?

MR. McCLELLAN: He's very appreciative of all the efforts that are going on, yes, absolutely. I think you all saw some of the military personnel there at Northern Command, and how they are working around the clock, doing a great job. He's very appreciative of all the people that are working around the clock and engaged in the damage assessment and the search and rescue, and working with the first responders.

Q Did he express any concern about how the evacuation of Houston went, and that it really kind of -- there were a lot of problems with that, and it showed that maybe we're not quite ready to be able to evacuate a major metropolitan area?

MR. McCLELLAN: A couple things. I don't know that that would be an accurate characterization. You probably ought to ask officials that have been involved in those efforts. The state is responsible for the evacuation efforts. The President actually received an update during the briefings that the evacuation effort in Texas had started early, and that -- the report he received was that it -- I'll go back to it -- that the evacuation effort had gone well, and that the federal government, state and local officials were able to preposition a lot of supplies early. I think everybody recognized at a very early point that this hurricane could -- was going to be very dangerous, and the evacuation started very early.

And I think that's one of the lessons learned from Katrina. You saw that state officials took -- and local officials took steps early to evacuate a number of counties. Some were mandatory for all the counties, or part of the counties, others were voluntary. And the federal government role was to assist in those efforts as we could.

One of the great success stories was focused in the Beaumont area, yesterday, when -- I believe it was yesterday, I think I updated you all, yesterday morning and overnight yesterday, and continued into yesterday, where you had a lot of patients at a hospital that needed to be evacuated, and the military and the state and local officials and the private sector -- I think Southwest and maybe some others had some commercial air flights, commercial airplane that went into there, and they were able to evacuate some 3,000 people from that hospital. And that showed the good coordination that's going on.

Q The people I'm asking about, that -- a lot of people, yes, they started in Houston early, and people started getting out, but a lot of people couldn't get very far, either because the roads were so clogged, or because the gas ran out. I mean, it didn't go all that well. A lot of people couldn't get very far at all.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I guess you're doing an instant assessment from the plane here. I think that you need to talk to the state and -- the state officials and local officials that were involved with the evacuation. It was unprecedented the number of people that were evacuated in parts of Texas. It was well over a million or two million, it was a significant number of people. And I would urge you to talk to the state officials. The role of the federal government is to assist in every way we could, and that's why I pointed out one of the successes yesterday, in terms of the hospital in Beaumont that was evacuated with the assistance of the federal -- with the military.

Q Could you explain a little bit more about the change in the lines of authority that he wants to see? Does he want to see the federal government --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I don't think so -- I mean, because I think it's something that he's very much thinking about, and discussing. And part of today enabled him to do some fact finding and get an up-close look at some of those issues and discuss some of those issues with our commanders who are in charge of defending the homeland. I'm not going to try to get ahead of where things are. The President is thinking about this, focused on it, and we're going to be working with Congress to look at these issues.

Q Is he going to go straight to San Antonio, or do you anticipate the helicopter ride going to see anything where the hurricane was?

MR. McCLELLAN: No. There are ongoing operations right now, and I think as you all know, we are not going to get in the way of ongoing operations.

Q So there's no plans to take an aerial tour?

MR. McCLELLAN: There never was a plan on this trip to do that. This is the immediate response time, and I don't think -- that's something that we've never done.

END 1:56 P.M. CDT

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