President Bush flew over flooded fields and downed trees on Wednesday as he kept a close watch on the Hurricane Gustav recovery, in contrast to his administration's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina three years ago. After he boarded Air Force One, Bush called New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and received a briefing from R. David Paulison, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"Baton Rogue got hit pretty hard," Paulison told reporters on the plane. "They got hit worse than New Orleans did. There's obviously no power. A lot of trees are down, windows blown out in buildings, roofs gone."
Paulison, who said he believes the federal response to Gustav went "extremely well," warned residents against returning to their homes before city services are up and running.
"We would caution people not to move back in until their parish president says it's safe to move back in," he said. "Most of the areas don't have electricity. Some of them don't have water and there's no infrastructure in place no grocery stores, gas stations those type of things."
He said residents who are given the OK to return should bring enough food and water along to sustain them and their families for a few days.
As Air Force One descended into Baton Rogue, the wrath of Gustav could be seen from the windows of the plane: A collapsed roof. Downed trees and power lines. Flooded fields.
By nearly all accounts, the federal government's response to Gustav was much improved over the uncoordinated effort during Katrina. The Bush administration is hoping its work on Gustav will at least partially fade the stain Katrina left on Bush's legacy. Some of the nearly 2 million evacuees, particularly in Texas, on the far fringes of the storm's path, suggested authorities overreacted in demanding they leave their homes. Emergency officials, however, defended the decision to evacuate coastal areas. That lesson was driven home by Katrina, which killed 1,600 people in 2005, compared with nine deaths attributed so far to Gustav. Still, Gustav caused significant damage: Early insurance industry estimates put the expected damage to covered properties at anywhere from $2 billion to $10 billion. That's high, but well short of Katrina's $41 billion.
"We were tickled to death it wasn't as bad as predicted," Paulison said. "It was still a tough storm."
More tests of the nation's hurricane preparedness may already be in the queue. Three storms were lining up in the Atlantic Ocean, with Tropical Storm Hanna leading the way.
Hanna drenched flood-plagued Haiti on Wednesday, and was expected to menace the U.S. coastline by the weekend, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
The president said his need to monitor recovery efforts was the reason he was a no-show at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Remarks about Gustav topped his speech beamed via satellite to the convention hall on Tuesday night. He, too, urged Gulf Coast residents to wait for local officials to give them a green light to move back.
"We know that there is still risk even after the storm has passed," Bush said. "So I ask citizens across the region to listen closely to local officials and follow their instructions before returning to their homes."