US President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will skip the Republican National Convention because of mounting concerns about Hurricane Gustav, the White House said today.
His Homeland Security chief warned that Gustav could prove more challenging than Katrina and the nation’s disaster response co-ordinator worried about New Orlean’s fragile levees.
First lady Laura Bush still was scheduled to address delegates in St Paul, Minnesota, tomorrow, the opening day.
Mr Bush planned to get an update on preparations for the storm, which could make landfall along the Gulf Coast as early as tomorrow, from disaster relief officials and state and local representatives today. After visiting the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s operations centre, the president was expected to make a statement about the situation.
In a telephone call to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Mr Bush said he was “checking in and getting ready to go through this again with him,” spokeswoman Dana Perino said. Mr Nagin told Mr Bush the forecast did not look good, but that he was pleased so far with the co-ordination with the federal government.
Mr Nagin told Mr Bush that residents were heeding the evacuation notice, roads were full and the elderly were getting the message to leave, Mr Perino said.
The White House was working on possible alternatives that would allow Mr Bush to make a speech at the convention, Mr Perino said.
But Mr Cheney is to leave on Tuesday on a four-country trip that includes a stop in Georgia.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain, along with his wife, Cindy, and running mate Sarah Palin intended to travel to Jackson, Mississippi, on Sunday at the invitation of Governor Haley Barbour.
They were to receive a briefing at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
Ahead of the storm, Mr Bush pre-emptively declared states of emergency for Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama.
The declaration clears the way for federal aid to supplement state and local efforts and formalises co-ordination.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Fema chief David Paulison have visited the region to monitor developments; Mr Chertoff was returning there today.
Equipment and people were put in position and safe shelters readied, with cots, blankets and hygiene kits en route.
Mr Chertoff, who planned to remain in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for the duration of the storm, said co-ordination among response officials was much better than it was during Katrina.
But he acknowledged some shortcomings so far, including buses that had yet to arrive at evacuation points and last-minute decisions by hospitals to move critically ill patients out of the storm’s way.
With New Orleans’ mandatory evacuation getting under way, internal government briefing documents obtained by The Associated Press said Louisiana was short 750 buses needed for evacuation.
Mr Chertoff said school buses were expected to fill in for the contract buses that had not appeared and that the Canadian military was lending planes to help evacuate hospital patients.
“This is probably the case with almost any emergency, which is as soon as you make contact with the enemy, the plan starts to suffer some alterations,” Mr Chertoff told reporters at Andrews Air Force base before his departure.
He said reports that some Louisiana residents apparently have decided to ride that storm out in their homes “strikes me as exceptionally foolish”.
Gustav is “going to be, in some ways, more challenging than Katrina,” Mr Chertoff said.
Mr Paulison, in a broadcast interview, said Gustav “will test parts of the levee that were not tested during Katrina.”
The Army Corps of Engineers have made those levees stronger since Katrina “but there are still a lot of vulnerabilities. This could be a much worse storm. Hopefully, it won’t be, but the possibilities are definitely there.”