Bracing for a storm that could surpass Hurricane Katrina, President Bush on Sunday said he would skip the Republican National Convention and head instead to Texas to be with evacuees and emergency responders. He warned a jittery Gulf Coast that it could face "significant flooding."
"The message to the people of the Gulf Coast is, this storm is dangerous," Bush said bluntly after a briefing on Hurricane Gustav's path and power. "There's a real possibility of flooding, storm surge, and high winds. ... Do not put yourself in harm's way, or make rescue workers take unnecessary risks."
The president's quick change of travel will put him in the region on the very day that Gustav was expected to slam into the United States. The swift, hands-on level of engagement comes three years after his White House was blistered for a sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina. The legacy of that debacle helped shape Bush's presidency.
Bush's move also shows the vastly changing tone of the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn., where presidential candidate John McCain has said Gustav will now take precedence.
The National Hurricane Center said Gustav weakened slightly but was expected to regain strength as it moves over warm waters toward the U.S. coast, possibly becoming a Category 4 hurricane later Sunday. Forecasters upgraded a hurricane watch to a warning for a swath of over 500 miles, from Louisiana near the Texas border to the Alabama-Florida state line.
Bush has had a visible role in responding to disasters in person, especially after Katrina, but heading to the site even before the storm hits is highly unusual. The president sought to assure the nation that the federal government was ready this time and working well with state and local leaders.
"There's a lot of preparations that have gone in, in anticipation of this storm," Bush said.
He has called governors, declared emergencies in the likely affected states, talked to the New Orleans mayor and thanked emergency workers for their long hours. He made the comments after a briefing at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters.
Bush said local leaders should get "everything they need from the federal government to prepare for what all anticipate will be a difficult situation."
As for the people of the battered Gulf Coast, Bush said: "They've made it through great challenges in the past and they're going to make it through this one."
Still, he was also careful not to be rosy. Even though the president said levees are "stronger than they've ever been," he said people throughout the Gulf Coast, especially in New Orleans, "need to understand that in a storm of this size there is serious risk of significant flooding."
The FEMA director, David Paulison, told reporters a few hours after Bush's visit: "I think we have plenty of opportunity to get people out in time. It's those who are choosing not to get out that concerns me."
Bush planned a Monday visit to an emergency operations center in Austin, Texas, to inspect coordination among all levels of government. He also planned to go to San Antonio, where relief materials are being stored up and people who fled the storm's path have found shelter.
Bush said he was not traveling to Louisiana immediately because he did not want to interfere with emergency workers, but hoped to get there soon.
The president had planned to give the showpiece speech of the night on Monday, the start of the Republican celebration. Vice President Dick Cheney and first lady Laura Bush, who also planned to speak at the Republican convention on Monday, were not going, either.
Bush is still considering taking part, perhaps by video feed. If so, the tone and content of his comments will surely change given the storm.
Earlier on Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff 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," Chertoff said.
Katrina was the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history. It swamped the beloved city of New Orleans, killed more than 1,600 people across the Gulf Coast, destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and caused billion of dollars in damage.
Bush phoned New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on Sunday and said he was "checking in and getting ready to go through this again with him," spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
Nagin told Bush the forecast did not look good, but that he was pleased so far with the federal coordination, and with ongoing evacuations. More than 1 million residents made wary by Hurricane Katrina took buses, trains, planes and cars out of New Orleans and other coastal cities over the weekend.
Military airlifts evacuated thousands of New Orleans residents to Nashville, San Antonio, Louisville, Ky., and Fort Smith, Ark.
The Energy Department said Sunday that potential storm damage to refineries, oil rigs and other infrastructure poses a risk to the nation's oil supplies, but that the disruption should be temporary thanks to record levels of oil stored in emergency reserves.