James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:38 P.M. EDT
MR. McCLELLAN: All right, good afternoon, everybody. I want to begin with an update on some of the hurricane preparations.
First of all, the President this morning — earlier this morning received an update about Hurricane Rita and the storm track that it was taking, the latest update there. He participated in a hurricane briefing with Secretary Chertoff and senior White House officials to talk about the preparations and response efforts for Hurricane Rita, as well as talk about the ongoing recovery and planning for rebuilding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
As of this morning, Hurricane Rita remained a category five hurricane. The maximum sustained winds were at or near 175 miles per hour, with higher gusts. Rita is an extremely dangerous hurricane. Citizens in the Gulf Coast region need to take it very seriously. We urge all citizens in the path of the storm to follow the advice of state and local authorities. The best thing they can do is get out of the path of the storm. There are a number of evacuations that continue. I’ll get to that in a minute.
As of this morning, Rita is forecast to make landfall early Saturday morning a few miles east of Galveston Bay. And they expect that — the forecasters expect that the Gulf Coast region in Texas will experience the onset of tropical storm-force winds as early as Friday evening, with hurricane-force winds following several hours after there. There’s going to be heavy rainfall associated with it, obviously. And those are things we’re all watching closely.
The latest update from the Department of Homeland Security on some of the preparations going on in Texas include over 400 medical team personnel, 14 urban search and rescue teams positioned in — I believe in the Fort Sam Houston area in San Antonio, Texas. The state of Florida has released all their FEMA preposition teams and assets, and FEMA has been in the process of moving those assets and commodities to the state of Texas.
As I mentioned, the Coast Guard is prepositioning search and rescue, pollution response and aids to navigation assets inland for a post-storm response. The Coast Guard disaster area response teams are getting in place, prestaging in Houston to provide relief after the storm hits.
An advisory has also been sent out to — was sent out yesterday to evacuate all oil rigs and platforms in the Gulf of Mexico that may be in the path of the storm. The Department of Defense’s Northern Command has ordered a number of heavy-lift, medium-lift helicopters to be staged at Patrick Air Force Base and available for damage assessments that would be performed by FEMA representatives. You have the state of Texas activating some 5,000 National Guard personnel. There are more than 10,000 in the state that are ready to be activated if needed. There are a number of other National Guard around the country that are on stand-by if needed, as well.
The Department of Transportation has provided several hundred buses to the state of Texas to support preparations for Rita, and the American Red Cross has resources to deliver at least 750,000 meals a day after Rita makes landfall, while keeping appropriate resources in place for Katrina victims, as well.
The state of Texas, as you are aware, has ordered mandatory evacuations in all or part of a number of counties. The number of people being evacuated in the state of Texas is unprecedented, well over a million people. There are voluntary evacuations in other parts of Texas, as well, and they continue to look at decisions for additional evacuations that need to be made.
And a disaster declaration for Texas, as well as Louisiana, was issued — emergency declaration was issued by the President at the request of the Governors yesterday. Admiral Hereth remains the principal federal official in charge of operations on the ground in the state of Texas. He is based in Austin, Texas, in the joint field office. And Admiral Allen remains the primary federal official in charge of operations in Louisiana. You heard from Governor Blanco a short time ago urging evacuations all along the coastal areas in Louisiana. Buses are in place to help facilitate some of those efforts; there’s shelters in place. The Corps of Engineer continues to work to shore up the closed levee breaches. The levees, as we talked about, are in a weakened state of condition. And that is a concern for us, with heavy rainfall that is expected from Hurricane Rita. And there’s still a number of search and rescue teams in the region, as well as disaster medical teams.
In terms of the preposition of assets in Texas, just to go back through that, it’s at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Fort Worth. The search and rescue teams are actually based in Fort Worth and San Antonio. And then there is large amounts of water, ice, MREs, tarps, generators, plastic sheeting rolls stationed in Texas at Fort Sam Houston, and in Fort Worth, at the mobilization center there, as well as in Louisiana.
A couple of updates in terms of briefings. Chief Paulison is supposed to be briefing at 2:30 p.m. today from Washington, to give us the latest operational update. Admiral Allen and General Honore are scheduled to brief at 3:00 p.m. in Baton Rouge. And Admiral Hereth and, I believe, a Texas state emergency official will be briefing at 4:00 p.m. Eastern in Austin, Texas.
Let me update you on the President’s schedule, too, for tomorrow and into Saturday. The schedule is still in flux and subject to change. The plan at this point is that the President will leave tomorrow afternoon and will make a stop in Texas. He will stop to see — get a firsthand look at the preparations that are underway for Hurricane Rita and to show our support for the first responders as they get ready for the response to Hurricane Rita.
Following that, we will travel to Colorado, where the President will visit the Northern Command. This will give the President an opportunity to monitor the storm and to get a firsthand look at the federal government’s assistance that is going on with state and local preparations and response efforts during Hurricane Rita. It also gives the President an opportunity to look at the military response efforts from the federal government’s standpoint. One of the issues that you’ve heard the President talk about is the role of the United States military in responding to catastrophic storms or catastrophic natural disasters. And that’s something that we need to take a close look at in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This will give him a firsthand look at the Northern Command and how the military is assisting in federal government response efforts to Hurricane Rita.
And finally, I want to make one note on action taking place in the United States Senate today. The Senate Judiciary Committee is moving forward on the confirmation of Judge John Roberts. We appreciate the committee moving forward in a timely manner. We commend Senator Specter for his leadership. We appreciate Senator Leahy’s support for Judge Roberts. He is an extremely well-qualified nominee who will make an outstanding Supreme Court Justice and someone that all Americans can be proud of.
We also commend the committee for moving forward in a civil and dignified way. And we hope that this is setting an example for the way that they will carry forward on the President’s next nominee. And we appreciate the Senate moving forward quickly to bring his nomination to a floor vote so that he can be in place by the time the Court comes into session in October.
And with that, I’ll be glad to go to your questions.
Q: What are you suggesting that the President can learn by going to Northern Command? The role of the military is already very well-defined. They could do everything except law enforcement, federal troops. There’s no problem. What’s he going to learn? What does he want to change?
MR. McCLELLAN: And that was one of the — well, it’s not just that, Bill. Remember what I said, it’s so he can get a firsthand look at how the military is responding as part of the federal government’s assistance to the state and local first responders that will be on the ground helping in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Rita.
Q: When you say he want to take a close look at the —
MR. McCLELLAN: It’s the issue — it’s an issue that the President discussed in his press conference last week, it’s an issue that I’ve brought up in the briefing. One of the issues that came up in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was the role of the military. The military has the logistics and the communications capability to be able to go into an area quickly and establish a strong response to whatever the circumstances may be. And one of the circumstances that came up during Hurricane — or in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was the issue of the security situation. And the security situation was — that was one of the issues, in terms of being able to get supplies like food and water and medicine to people on the ground in New Orleans that had not been evacuated for whatever reason. And there were — there is a lot of discussion going on about the responsibility for the law enforcement matters.
Q: Is that what he’s looking to change?
MR. McCLELLAN: Now, the military — the military, by law, cannot — active duty military cannot engage in law enforcement matters. The President thinks that this is an issue that needs to be looked at as we move forward to address these issues.
What happened with Hurricane Katrina was that you had two storms, the hurricane and then the flooding. And the flooding presented additional challenges. New Orleans was certainly some unique challenges that it presented first responders with. And first responders did a great job. They were working around the clock, but it also, to a large extent, overwhelmed some of their capabilities. And so these are all issues to look at and consider.
Q: Right, but the President has the ability to — under the Insurrection Act, to —
MR. McCLELLAN: That’s correct.
Q: — to make the military a part of the law enforcement operation. He can do that —
MR. McCLELLAN: There are a host of legal issues involved.
Q: There are, indeed. But are you suggesting that he would like to find some other way to get them actively involved in law enforcement under special circumstances?
MR. McCLELLAN: I’m saying that these are issues that need to be looked at as we look at the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina. We need to look back, and we have been, at what went wrong and what went right, and then do a lessons learned review.
Q: That’s what he’s looking at, then, some way to give them the authority to conduct the security operations.
MR. McCLELLAN: That’s one of the issues that we need to look at, is the role of the military, because there is a — there are responsibilities at all levels of government when it comes to responding to hurricanes. Typically, the first responders are the state and local first responders, and the federal government’s role is to assist those first responders. But there are some unique challenges that Katrina exposed that we need to look at and we need to do a better job of in the future in terms of responding to.
Q: So you’re saying that he’d like to look at the question of whether the military should be involved in law enforcement?
MR. McCLELLAN: He indicated that last week.
Q: How is it going to help the people of Texas practically prepare for this storm that the President is going to fly in to take a firsthand look at preparations and show support for first responders? How is that going to practically help them do what they have to do?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think we’re going to have as minimal a footprint as possible. We’re not going to get in the way of the ongoing preparations that are going on. We go out of our way when we travel to make sure that that doesn’t happen. The President wants to go in there and be able to thank all those first responders as they are gearing up for the challenges that will be coming shortly thereafter. That’s why we’re going there first, for a short amount of time, and then going on to Colorado. And it will also give him a chance to see firsthand some of the preparations that are underway on the ground.
Q: But it sounds like a bit of a photo op, one that he’d prefer over playing the guitar at the airport photo op before Katrina.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, let’s correct the record on that. There was a reporter from your news organization that was backstage during that event. That was an event to go and thank our troops and talk about the war on terrorism. And it was not an event, as you may have portrayed to some people that are watching this out there by this simple statement. It was —
Q: He didn’t pick up the guitar while the hurricane was rolling into Louisiana?
MR. McCLELLAN: — much more than that. The person that was entertaining our troops there presented a gift to the President. So I think you need to make that clear to everybody who’s watching this or to your viewers. And it was one of your colleagues at ABC News who was backstage taking a picture of that.
Q: It was a very good picture and I’m proud of her, but the question I have —
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, but that picture was taken by someone — hang on, hang on, Terry — that picture was taken by some people way out of context. And it was portrayed that the President was simply doing that, and that’s not the case, as you and I know.
Q: The point was that he was over there and not —
MR. McCLELLAN: As you and I know, I had announced shortly before that, that we were returning the next morning. As you and I know, we had announced the President — the day before — all the briefings he was participating in. The President spoke the day before. He spoke that day about the hurricane. So let’s just set the record straight.
Q: Fair enough.
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that’s unfair.
Q: So the trip to Texas to take a look at the preparations and show support for the first responders is not a photo op?
MR. McCLELLAN: This is very much something that’s in flux. I would describe it the way I did. This is a catastrophic hurricane that is headed toward the coast of Texas, and the President wants to go and be able to see some of the preparations that are underway and thank all those who are involved in preparing for this response. He is the President, and, as he indicated to you all, it is his responsibility when it comes to the federal government’s role in these hurricanes. And he made the decision that this is what he wanted to do tomorrow.
Q: Are you not doing anything on Katrina on this trip?
MR. McCLELLAN: I’m sorry?
Q: Are you not doing anything on Katrina?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I don’t want to rule that out —
Q: When does he get back?
MR. McCLELLAN: Again, we’ll be overnighting in Colorado, but the rest of the schedule for the weekend is still in flux. And this schedule that I announced to you all could still — will change to some extent. This is what the expectations are; I wanted to keep you posted on that. But I would expect while we’re at Northern Command he would hear more about some of the military’s involvement in Katrina. That continues.
Q: Scott, when you talked about looking at the military response efforts when he’s at the Northern Command, does this suggest anything will be different in how active duty military will be utilized? The President earlier in his remarks seemed to indicate there would be no difference. And when we’ve spoken to you before, you suggested no difference and you referred us to —
MR. McCLELLAN: I don’t know that I said that.
Q: Well, you said that the Governor of Texas has activated National Guard —
MR. McCLELLAN: And I think both Texas and Louisiana have made some requests in terms of active duty assistance. The military, what they can do is provide a lot of strong support in terms of the relief and the response efforts. The Coast Guard is always very involved in the search and rescue operations. It is amazing, some of the lifesaving operations that they undertake and that they carry out and they work around the clock during situations like this. The President was able to personally thank a number of those in Louisiana who had been working around the clock to save lives.
Q: Aside from the Coast Guard, which was involved through all of that, do you plan for a specific role that is different than what we saw with Katrina for active duty U.S. military?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there’s some different circumstances that might be involved with this hurricane, because you have different situations in terms of the landscape from Texas to New Orleans. But the military is mobilizing their resources, they are prepositioning. There are enormous amounts of assets and resources that are being prepositioned in the region. There were a number that were already in the region and the ships are being moved around to make sure it’s out of the way of the path of the storm so that they can quickly come back in after the storm. So there is a lot of preparations that are underway.
And I indicated yesterday we want to do everything we can to make sure we are better prepared to respond to Hurricane Rita, and that’s what we’re working to do. That’s why the — one of the most important lessons that the President just highlighted was that people need to evacuate early. I think that people in Texas and Louisiana have a very clear message. They’ve been evacuating very early, getting out of the path of the storm. That’s the best thing that they can do. We’re also working to make sure that the coordination is as seamless as possible with state and local officials. Admiral Hereth talked about the excellent relationship with the state officials and local officials in Texas and how they have very strong coordination going on right now. We’re working to do — redouble our efforts when it comes to the coordination and the preparations. And we will continue to do so.
Q: One more. The President indicated today, as you did, that he spoke to Governor Perry last night and again this morning, but has not spoken to Governor Blanco since he was on the ground a few days. Since Louisiana is also at great threat, why is the President not speaking personally to Governor Blanco?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Admiral Allen has stayed in very close contact with her. General Honore probably has, as well. They’re going to be briefing later today. She indicated that she had made a request to Admiral Allen for additional federal troops, and so you’re going to hear from Admiral Allen a little bit later today. But we stay in contact with them at very high levels throughout this time period.
Q: Not high enough for the President to speak to her?
MR. McCLELLAN: And the President spoke — the President has been in close contact with her on a number of occasions, Kelly.
Q: Scott, has there been any reluctance or resistance or institutional friction between the federal, state and local governments as we prepare for Rita as of this morning?
MR. McCLELLAN: — in terms of the operational aspects, I think that’s best directed to our point people who are in charge of the operations — Admiral Hereth and Admiral Allen, for the respective states of Louisiana and Texas. The indications that I’ve heard from Admiral Hereth are that the coordination in Texas is going very well. I’ve seen and the President has seen firsthand the coordination that has been going on in terms of Louisiana. And there is a good working relationship between the President and the Governor, and the President and the Mayor in Louisiana. There’s a good working relationship between Admiral Allen and General Honore and the Mayor and the Governor, as well.
Q: So insofar as lessons learned are concerned, at this point it would appear as though things are going far more smoothly?
MR. McCLELLAN: I’m not going to try to compare, because we’re — one of the things we’re committed to doing is doing a comprehensive review of what went wrong and what went right in terms of Katrina. And that’s also one of the things that the Congress is moving forward on. We appreciate the House moving forward on the investigation to look at the lessons learned and to look at all levels of government and determine what the facts were.
Q: But at this point, you’re satisfied with the process?
MR. McCLELLAN: With the coordination? Well, I think those in charge of our operations on the ground have expressed that, and they’re the best ones to talk to about it.
Q: What arrangements are being made to provide temporary emergency housing for the hundreds of thousands of people who are now being displaced by Rita? And what’s the federal —
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there are number of shelters set up in Texas, Louisiana, and I think elsewhere. I think that’s a great question in terms of the specifics. I gave you a very general update at the top of this briefing on that. In terms of the specifics, I think that’s a great question to ask at the operational briefings that will be taking place later today. I don’t have the most up-to-date information on that, and they will, on the ground in those two states.
Q: Does it appear, though, that there’s adequate capability to take in people who need to be —
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the good thing is that they’ve been moving people out quickly and early, and that they’re — we’ve provided a lot of assistance in terms of, as I mentioned, buses, and I think aircraft, as well, and rail cars, as well, I think are available. So the federal government is assisting those efforts. It’s the responsibility of the states and local authorities. We’re doing all we can to assist in those evacuation efforts to get people to safe areas and into safe shelters.
Q: I have an observation and a question.
MR. McCLELLAN: Okay.
Q: The observation is I’ve heard you say several times that the Judiciary Committee has acted in a civil and dignified way. Did you expect otherwise? Isn’t that pretty condescending? And also, who makes up the list of reporters that the President can call on, or is allowed to?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think it’s what the American people expect. I mean, we have seen at times where —
Q: Why do you keep saying it?
MR. McCLELLAN: — where things — well, because, I think we all recognize here in Washington sometimes things tend to get down into the bitter, partisan debates. And the Supreme Court is our highest court in the land. The President has an obligation to nominate someone for the bench when a vacancy occurs, and it’s the role of the Senate to move forward on confirming that nomination.
Q: It’s a free country where people can express themselves.
MR. McCLELLAN: And the American people — and there — that’s absolutely right. But there’s no reason why we cannot move forward in a civil and dignified way as we conduct the confirmation hearings. And the Senate, I think, has largely done that —
Q: What hasn’t moved forward in —
MR. McCLELLAN: — they have largely done that on Judge Roberts, and we hope they will do that going forward. There are a lot of media reports talking about how there’s going to be a very contentious hearing for the next nominee. We haven’t even — the President hasn’t even made a decision on who will be his nominee for the vacancy on the Supreme Court. And so that’s why. I think I’m speaking for a lot of Americans who want to see a civil and dignified process going forward.
Q: — be contentious and civil and dignified in a democracy —
MR. McCLELLAN: And I can also express my — I can also express the President’s appreciation to the Senate for moving forward in a timely manner and moving forward in a civil and dignified way. We commend this —
Q: It’s condescending.
MR. McCLELLAN: No. It’s complimenting them on the process.
Q: Who makes up the list of reporters that he is allowed to call on?
Q: Yes, where’s Bianca? (Laughter.)
MR. McCLELLAN: Who makes up the list? It depends on the reporters that show up. I don’t think she had a question. But the President —
Q: Who is Bianca, anyway?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think the President had his most recent press conference this afternoon just a short time before I was out here, took questions from I think everyone who was there.
Q: — you count that as a press conference?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think it was a 30-minute briefing and several questions taken. I think I would call it a press conference.
Q: Does anyone know who she is?
Q: — the vote was 13-5 in favor. I didn’t know —
MR. McCLELLAN: I’m sorry?
Q: I just learned the vote was 13-5 in favor —
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, if that’s true, we commend the Senate Judiciary Committee for moving forward. As I said, Judge Roberts is going to make an outstanding Chief Justice and someone that the American people can be very proud of on the bench.
Q: I wanted to ask about Fran Townsend. What is her role in the preparations for Hurricane Rita?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the Homeland Security Council stays in very close contact with the Department of Homeland Security. So she is very much participating — or her Deputy, Ken Rapuano, who is very focused on these issues — in the briefings and in the meetings. They have both been participating in the policy briefings; they both have been participating in meetings discussing the preparations and the response efforts. That’s the role of the Homeland Security Advisor.
Q: Is she going to be traveling with the President this weekend to —
MR. McCLELLAN: We don’t have any more to update you in terms of the schedule. These stops are being finalized as we talk, so I don’t think that we’ve gotten to the point of who all is traveling with the President at this point.
Q: How is she dividing her time then between the investigation into Katrina and then also carrying out the duties of preparing for Rita?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, because there are other people involved. That’s one of the reasons I mentioned Ken Rapuano. We have a number of priorities that we have to address. One of the areas that Fran is very focused on is counterterrorism. That’s a very important priority. And I updated you all during Hurricane Katrina, or the aftermath of that, in terms of how we were staying focused on that highest of priorities, as well.
When you’re President of the United States, there are a number of priorities you have to work to address. That’s why the President was going over to the Pentagon today to get an update on the war on terrorism, and to talk about the ongoing war on terrorism. He starts every morning with Fran Townsend and others in intelligence briefings and homeland security briefings.
Go ahead, Paula.
Q: The administration has taken several steps already to try quicken the response to Katrina. Why is the White House not supporting Senate legislation that would allow all Katrina evacuees eligibility temporarily for Medicaid, and instead seems to be taking this state-by-state approach, which, as you know, Katrina evacuees are all around the country? Wouldn’t that be a more laborious process?
MR. McCLELLAN: Right. Well, first of all, I don’t think that’s an accurate characterization. I don’t know where it is we said we were opposed to any efforts to provide help to people that have been affected by Hurricane Katrina, in fact, quite the contrary. We are acting to make sure that they are getting the benefits quickly. And one of the things we’re doing is we’ve made it clear that the states will be recompensated in full that are taking in these people who have been evacuated that are in need of Medicare — Medicaid. And we’re making sure that all those who are eligible for that assistance are getting that assistance. That’s one of the high priorities. That’s one of the areas that Secretary Leavitt is working on when it comes to this.
And I’ve got to go because we’ve got King Abdullah coming here. Sorry to have to cut it short, but we will see you all tomorrow.
Q: Are you not going to have a briefing tomorrow before he leaves?
MR. McCLELLAN: I’m sorry?
Q: Are you briefing tomorrow?
MR. McCLELLAN: I’ll look at the schedule, but probably.
END 1:03 P.M. EDT