Aboard Air Force One
En route New Orleans, Louisiana
11:21 A.M. EDT
MR. McCLELLAN: All right, I’ve got our Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Recovery and Rebuilding here with us, Don Powell, as well as our Homeland Security Advisor, Fran Townsend.
First, though, I want to kind of walk through the President’s day and talk about the visit, and then I’m going to turn it over to Chairman Powell to talk to you all a little bit more and give you an update on the progress we’ve made on the rebuilding efforts, and where we are as we’re heading into hurricane season.
First of all, the President, this morning, spoke with the Prime Minister of Hungary. This was a congratulatory call. The President congratulated the Prime Minister on his election victory and his leadership. The two leaders talked about the importance of U.S. and Hungarian relations, and the President said he looked forward to continuing to work with the Prime Minister to build upon our close working relationship.
Then the President had his usual briefing. Following that, when we arrive in New Orleans, the President will be met by Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin. And then we will go to a volunteer service project. This is National Volunteer Week, as a reminder.
Just a couple of tidbits. This is our 11th visit to the Gulf Coast region in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. I think it’s our 11th visit to Louisiana and it will be our ninth visit to the Mississippi area later in the day. But the Governor and Mayor will be with us in New Orleans. The first volunteer service project the President will go to is an Operation Helping Hands project. This is — Operation Helping Hands is part of the Catholic Charities of New Orleans. And this is an effort to help repair homes and apartments for lower-income residents in New Orleans. And I expect the President will be there to recognize volunteers and probably visit with a family of one of the homes that they have been rebuilding.
And then following that, we’re going to go to a Habitat for Humanity project that’s close by, as well. And we’ll get you more information on that as we get there. After that, we’ll go to Mississippi, and we’re going to go to the Biloxi area. Governor Barbour will be with us. I think the Mayor of Gulfport will be a greeter for the President when he gets to the airport, as well, and then the Mayor of Biloxi will be there for the volunteer project, he’ll meet us there.
But he’s going to visit a volunteer base camp there, where they have, at any one time, about 120 to 170 volunteers. And these volunteers come from all over the United States. This is where they’re housed and fed. This base camp helps mobilize volunteers for the rebuilding efforts throughout the Biloxi area, and probably beyond.
Then we’ll return back to D.C.
A couple other items. One, we received — I think as you all are aware — a letter from 35 members of the Senate yesterday. This was on the emergency spending legislation for the global war on terrorism and the Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts. And the President was pleased to receive the letter. The senators expressed their appreciation for the President’s leadership and his commitment to making sure that we meet those important priorities. And they also indicated that they would sustain a veto if needed.
And then secondly, the Attorney General and the Director of the U.S. Marshals Service today will be announcing the results of a seven day nationwide fugitive roundup. And they arrested more than 9,000 individuals. But what’s of significant note is that there were 1,102 violent sexual offenders that were rounded up in this nationwide sweep. And that is the largest number of violent sexual offenders ever rounded up in one law enforcement effort. So that’s a good bit of news, and I just want to bring that to your attention.
And with that, I’m going to turn the rest of it over to Chairman Powell, and we’ll also be here to answer questions afterwards.
Q: Just a quick question about today. Are both the Louisiana visits, is that in New Orleans, where he’s going?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, in the New Orleans area, yes. Those two — they’re real close to each other, actually.
CHAIRMAN POWELL: Good morning.
Q: Good morning, sir.
CHAIRMAN POWELL: I don’t know how many times I’ve been down here, but I don’t keep up with the exact number of times I’ve been. I think there’s been good progress in both Louisiana and Mississippi. I have points of reference when I come down here each time. I go by the same area and I look for progress. Obviously, I’m always concerned about debris removal. I think there’s been a tremendous amount of debris that’s been removed in Mississippi. Louisiana, it’ s a little bit more difficult, the challenges are somewhat different. But there’s also been lots of progress in debris removal.
As you know, the Congress has passed the CDBG money that will allow for rebuilding in the Gulf Coast area. I think there is something like 40,000 potential applicants in Mississippi. Mississippi has already received 17,000 applicants. They’re processing about 1,300 a day. And hopefully money will be — grant money will be to those residents at the end of May. So there’s been lots of progress as it relates to Mississippi.
The Louisiana plan, the LRA, we approved their plan yesterday. It will now go before the Louisiana legislature, and hopefully, again, their housing plan will be approved and there will be money that will pass to the owners sometime middle to late summer.
The flood maps have been issued, the advisory flood maps were issued in New Orleans. I think that’s a very positive step. The Corps is working as we speak toward a target date of 1 June to bring the levee system back to pre-Katrina heights. I’m convinced that they will be able to do that prior to the start of hurricane season. So there’s been lots of progress. There’s lots of work yet to be done, but there’s been lots of progress going forward.
Q: How much has been spent or requested totally for the whole relief/recovery efforts? It’s over $100 billion —
CHAIRMAN POWELL: Well, with this supplemental we’ll be right at $100 billion.
Q: With the money now?
CHAIRMAN POWELL: With this supplement that’s in there now, it would be right at $100 billion.
Q: Originally it was $108 billion, back a couple of months ago; there was a $108 billion figure.
CHAIRMAN POWELL: I’m not sure about — I can get you those exact numbers.
Q: That’s with the bill that’s in the Senate right now?
CHAIRMAN POWELL: It’s right at $100 billion, yes.
Q: That includes the money that’s before the Senate today?
CHAIRMAN POWELL: Yes.
Q: Could you guys talk a little bit about the Homeland Security Committee discussions today, the report, and should FEMA be abolished?
MS. TOWNSEND: Look, I think we all share the same common goal, and that is having a strong, capable FEMA that’s better able to serve the American people when they’re in greatest need. How we go about that — we’re focused right now, prior to June 1st, before the start of the hurricane season, on the 11 critical elements, much of which — the 11 critical elements contained in the President’s report. And on each of those, the Department of Homeland Security, and FEMA in particular, have made some good progress. There continues to be more that has to be made.
Senator Collins graciously called me last night to talk about the findings and the recommendations in the report. I will tell you that, putting aside the issue of where FEMA is organizationally located, I will tell you I’ve been struck by — just in quickly looking over it and reviewing it, how many similar recommendations we have about how to go about improving the nation’s capability for preparedness and response.
On FEMA, there’s a couple of things. One, as we’re heading into this hurricane season, now is not the time to really look at moving organizational boxes. If there’s a better way to organize it, as I said to Senator Collins, we look forward to working with the committee. But first and foremost, there is a lot of dedicated, fine people at FEMA. They’re very focused on providing a better response to the nation this year. And we need to let them be focused on that.
The committee did a lot of work, they had extraordinary access, including from the White House. I would say to you, if you look at the findings, I think it’s 52 and 54 where they acknowledge the President took extraordinary steps pre-storm to prepare, and ultimately — it’s finding 54 where the committee acknowledges that, ultimately, it was the President and his staff that brought all the resources of federal government to bear. Can we do better? Absolutely. Will we do better, absolutely. The President has made perfectly clear that he wasn’t satisfied, and has mandated reform and transformation to improve the response.
Q: Are you going to be prepared for hurricane season?
MS. TOWNSEND: We’re making more progress every day. Today is not June 1st, so we have additional time. But you can see there are already differences that have happened. For example, Secretary Chertoff has been down in the region, he’s reviewing — he and his department are reviewing state and local emergency preparedness plans. He’s traveled to the region, he’s spoken to local officials. He’s had quite specific discussions about the kinds of assistance they think they will need in this coming hurricane season, especially given that they’ve not fully yet recovered from last hurricane season. He’s named principal federal officers who will be in charge throughout the Gulf Region. Those individuals are making contacts with their state and local counterparts, so they’re not meeting each other the first time in a disaster, like happened the prior year.
We’re strengthening the regional offices. The three most senior people in the department, George Foresman, Dave Paulison and Harvey Johnson, between them have over a hundred years of experience in managing large organizations and crisis. So we are far better prepared today than we were this time last year, and we will be even better prepared by June 1st. So I think the accurate answer is, we’ve made a lot of progress towards being better prepared; we will continue to make more up to and past June 1st.
Q: Taking your point that the onset of hurricane season isn’t a good time to start moving around boxes, when would be the window that you think it would be appropriate to look at that?
MS. TOWNSEND: You know, to be honest with you, I’ve just received the report. I talked to Senator Collins last night. We’ll work with the committee as is appropriate. And I understand they want to move forward with legislation.
Q: Can you talk about the recommendations that are different from what you do, or what you want, and how you feel about those recommendations, the major one dismantling FEMA, having the director of a new agency speak directly to the President?
MS. TOWNSEND: I’ve only just gotten it. I think there are some 86 recommendations, so I will tell you I have not been through this yet in detail, and I haven’t had the benefit of the full report, which will provide the basis for some of those recommendations.
The only one really that jumped out at me is this restructuring, if you will, of the FEMA capability and the reporting chain. The report itself, the pieces of it that I’ve looked at, make the analogy to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. I would phrase it a different way. I think the better analogy is to a combatant commander. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, while a military advisor to the President, is not in the chain of command, the national command authority.
Think of the director of FEMA, instead of as the joint chiefs, as a combatant commander. And that combatant commander maintains his chain of command up to the Secretary of Defense. Director of FEMA, we ought to maintain his reporting chain, his command, up to the Secretary of DHS. But even in that —
Q: DHS becomes the joint chief, the chairman of the joint chiefs? Is that sort of thing —
MS. TOWNSEND: No, no, what I’m saying is, the director of FEMA becomes the combatant commander, and just like there’s a Secretary of Defense, there’s a Secretary of DHS. You maintain the chain of command, but the President has access to the director of FEMA, and the director of FEMA has access to the President, just as General John Abizaid does. See what I’m saying? So if there’s a problem, the director of FEMA has the ability to break through.
Q: Okay —
MS. TOWNSEND: Okay.
MR. McCLELLAN: Is that all?
Q: Scott, unrelated question. The Chinese central bank has raised interest rates for the first time in 18 months. Is this seen in any way as a response to the administration’s push to be a better —
MR. McCLELLAN: That’s the first I’m hearing about it. Let me check on it, and I’ll get you a response. I think we spelled out what we would like to see China continue to do. That’s the first I’ve heard of this announcement.
Q: Was there a tax reconciliation deal reached last night, do you know?
MR. McCLELLAN: I’m sorry?
Q: Tax reconciliation deal?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think if anybody is going to talk more about it, it would be Senate and House leaders, if that’s what you’re referring to.
Q: Well, that’s what I’m referring to, but we were told that the White House might be announcing it.
MR. McCLELLAN: I don’t — if there’s something coming out of Congress on it — but we have continued to urge them to move forward on the tax reconciliation, particularly on the capital gains and dividends. We’ve been working very closely with leaders on it, and we think that there is good progress being made.
Q: You don’t know of any deal though?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I didn’t say that. I said that I don’t want to get ahead of members of Congress if they’re going to have more to say on it. This is something that is going through Congress right now.
Q: One other thing, unrelated. New York Times had a piece this morning saying that the President was meeting with the big three automakers on May 18th. Do you know what the meeting is all about?
MR. McCLELLAN: That schedule is still a little ways out, we haven’t announced anything, so as we get closer to that day, then we’ll make announcements. Obviously, the Advanced Energy Initiative is an important priority for the President, and really moving forward on transforming the way we power our cars and trucks is an important priority, and he’s been reaching out to a lot of people to talk about how we can do that, how we can work together to do it.
Q: But you can’t confirm —
MR. McCLELLAN: I’m not ready to announce anything on the President’s schedule this far out.
Q: It’s come to my attention that there’s been requests — this is a serious question — to turn these TVs onto a station other than Fox, and that those have been denied. My question would be, is there a White House policy that all government TVs have to be tuned to Fox?
MR. McCLELLAN: Never heard of any such thing. My TVs are on four different channels at all times.
Q: Because you have four different TVs. But every time I’ve ever been —
MR. McCLELLAN: Every TV in the White House also has channels every — has a split screen, where they can —
Q: Well, they always seem to be tuned to Fox, and there’s been requests, and these are paid for by taxpayer dollars. And my understanding is that you guys have to watch Fox on Air Force One. Is that true?
MR. McCLELLAN: First time I’ve ever heard of it. First time you’ve brought it to my attention, meaning the first time the press corps has brought it to my attention. In fact, I’ve watched other channels on here.
Q: There’s one —
MR. McCLELLAN: Hang on, Jim, come on. I’ve watched other channels on here, so I don’t know where you’re hearing that. But it’s the first time anyone in the press has raised that question with me.
Q: You’ve watched other channels other than Fox?
MR. McCLELLAN: On here, yes, sure.
Q: I’ve never seen — they’re always turned to Fox, which a lot of people consider a Republican-leaning network.
Q: Scott, is it one — on the airplane, is it one for all? I mean, if it’s tuned for Fox here, is it Fox everywhere?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think that certain areas may be interconnected, but I’ll have to double-check which.
Q: Is yours off, wherever you are?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the conference room, or the senior staff office, the staff office, they’re different TVs, and you can switch to different channels. I’m not sure if some of these in the back are connected to some of the others that are watching right here, right now. It doesn’t look like it to me. I’ve never known anyone that’s raised a complaint about a request from back here to watch a different channel.
Q: I’m officially raising it and officially complaining about it.
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I’m going to go see if we can change the channel for you. Have you called up?
Q: I was the Fox victim, and I was told — the quote was, “No,” when I asked for CNN.
MR. McCLELLAN: I don’t know who you talked to, so — it didn’t come to my attention. You don’t know who you talked to either?
Q: Well, the magic people at the other end off the phone.
MR. McCLELLAN: The magic people at the other end of the phone. Well, I’ll see if this cabin is —
Q: I was told, “We don’t watch CNN here, you can only watch Fox.”
MR. McCLELLAN: As I said, it’s hard to respond to something when I don’t know who it is you talked to.
Q: I used the phone back here.
MR. McCLELLAN: I find this all quite amusing, to tell you the truth. I mean, there are a lot of people on this plane that do watch that channel.
Q: I’ve never been told, no. They’re such nice guys up there.
MR. McCLELLAN: First time you brought it to my attention. I’ll go see what we can do on it.
* * * * *
MR. McCLELLAN: We just called up. They’re going to be changing it, at your all’s request, to the channel that you requested, which is CNN — from the press corps.
Q: Thanks, Scott.
END 11:39 A.M. EDT