BY JEREMY HARPER
President George W. Bush visited Lake Charles Tuesday to get a first-hand glimpse of Hurricane Rita’s destruction and to meet with local and state officials about the government’s response to the disaster.
Bush viewed the devastation in Cameron and Calcasieu parishes from Marine One before landing at Chennault International Airport just after noon in Air Force One. He then met with area mayors and parish officials for more than an hour.
“If you look in their eyes, you see people who have been through a lot,” Bush said during a brief statement to the news media following the meeting. “And they’re showing strong leadership, and I admire their stand and the courage they take.”
Before his 2 p.m. departure, Bush traveled by motorcade to the far end of the sprawling Chennault complex to a view a tent city where dozens of rescue workers from as far as Ohio and Nevada are staying. He stepped out and shook hands with many of the rescue workers, at one point posing for a picture with a woman and her rescue dog.
Upon his arrival, Bush was greeted by Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach and Lt. Gen. Russel Honore near an airplane hangar, which, like much of Chennault, sustained major damage during the storm.
“We had a great meeting with the president,” Roach said later. “I was told that we might have 20 minutes with him, I think we had about an hour and 40 minutes.
“He asked questions. He listened to what we were concerned about.”
Bush said he understands that evacuees are frustrated because they are barred from returning to their homes. Echoing calls from local officials, he urged residents not to return until basic services could be restored, which local officials have said could be weeks.
Bush said he cleared the way late Monday night for each family displaced by Rita to receive a $2,000 check -- the same type of expedited assistance victims of Hurricane Katrina received --to ease the financial burden of a long-term evacuation.
“I understand there’s a lot of frustrations with the people who left this part of the country -- people that are scattered around want to come back and see their homes, and they want to come back to the communities they love,” Bush said. “But it’s very important for them to understand that now is not the time to come back, until they get the utilities up and running and until they can get the sewer systems running and until they get some water people can drink.
“I heard loud and clear from the parish presidents and the mayors that, you know, people are getting frustrated. And I understand that frustration. But I think it’s very important to listen to the governor and the local folks about the conditions at home. People are working hard to get the utilities up, they’re working hard to get fuel here for people. And this area is going to rebuild and it’s going to grow again.”
Top federal disaster officials were also in town Tuesday, including acting FEMA director David Paulison and Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, head of the government’s hurricane relief operations. They participated in a briefing at the E-911 building on Hodges Street.
Allen said he has assigned a senior FEMA official to work directly from the Lake Charles area with local officials. He said once basic needs are provided for, officials will begin assessing damage to critical infrastructure.
Paulison praised local officials for their response before and after the hurricane, particularly the successful evacuation of more than 95 percent of the population.
“They have simply done an outstanding job,” Paulison said. “They’re professional, they did the evacuation properly, they’ve got their act together,” he said. “They don’t cut us any slack at all.”
Blanco said the response to Rita was an improvement over the widely criticized initial reaction to Katrina in southeast Louisiana and Mississippi.
“I do want to tell you that some things worked right this time; we learned a lot of lessons from our previous experience with Katrina,” Blanco said. “Our communications network stayed up, all of these folks could continue communicating their needs to us because there was a communications system that was not in place, it was brought in by your people and our people, working together.”
Paulsen said FEMA has delivered 916,000 pounds of ice, 54,000 gallons of water and 153,000 meals ready-to-eat to Southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas.
Bush’s meeting with local officials was a roundtable discussion, the local officials said, that included the heads of Cameron and Calcasieu, area mayors, Gov. Kathleen Blanco, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany.
Calcasieu Parish Police Jury President Hal McMillin said the meeting was relaxed and effective.
“We have the pipeline open for the recovery of Southwest Louisiana,” McMillin said.
The Chennault complex sustained heavy damage. Portions of hangars were twisted and huge tendrils of metal roofing draped over the sides of the buildings. Insulation was strewn about throughout the area and two aircraft in a hangar were visibly damaged.
Northrop Grumman’s Lake Charles site manager, J.J. Blood, who greeted Bush with Roach and Honore, said the damage to his company’s facilities and aircraft is repairable.
“Actually it probably isn’t as bad as it looks,” Blood said. “We’re looking at several different options in order to become operational and we’re hoping to have all this cleaned up by this weekend.”
Due to the extreme heat, Secret Service agents wore khaki pants with short-sleeved button-down shirts instead of the usual black suits.
Bush’s visit was only the second time a sitting president has visited Lake Charles.
Tuesday, September 27
BY JEREMY HARPER
Posted by American Press at 10:14 PM