President Bush set out Monday to show the nation that his administration has learned the haunting lessons of Katrina, planting himself near the danger zone soon after Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast.
Bush had planned to address the Republican National Convention, but he headed instead to Austin and San Antonio in Texas, a staging ground for emergency response efforts and a shelter for some Gulf Coast evacuees that include an estimated 2 million people from Louisiana.
The enduring memory of Katrina is not the ferocity of the storm, but the bungled reaction that led to preventable deaths and chaos. Disaster response has undoubtedly improved since then. But Katrina, which killed nearly 1,600 in 2005, was a low chapter in American history, and it deeply eroded credibility in Bush's administration.
By flying to Texas, Bush clearly wanted to show the nation, and particularly people of the Gulf Coast, that he is committed to answering their needs. He said he hopes to get to Louisiana, too, but will choose a time that does not interfere with emergency response efforts.
Gustav was downgraded to a Category 2 storm by mid-Monday morning. Katrina was a Category 3 storm when it hit the Gulf Coast three years ago, obliterating 90,000 square miles of property and costing billions of dollars in response and repairs.
First lady Laura Bush also was involved in the administration's effort to stress that things would be different this time. "Mistakes were made by everyone" at all levels of government in the handling of Katrina, Mrs. Bush said Monday on CNN.
"Part of it was not being able to have the good communication that you would need between the three governments," said Mrs. Bush, who also was to speak Monday night at the GOP convention. "And we have taken care of that, we know that's a lot better. And the lessons that were learned from Katrina can serve the United States very well in any kind of disaster."
Levees in and around New Orleans were expected to hold this time, but the storm's surge could overtop levees and at least partially flood the city, said Federal Emergency Management Agency Deputy Director Harvey E. Johnson.
Damage from Gustav "will be a catastrophe by the time you add it all up," Johnson said in an interview with The Associated Press a few hours before landfall. "But we're certainly not it expecting it be as much as a Katrina.
"We don't expect the loss of life, certainly, that we saw in Katrina," he said. "But we are expecting a lot of homes to be damaged, a lot of infrastructure to be flooded, and damaged severely."
Ahead of his trip, Bush got a briefing Sunday at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, object of so much scorn under Bush's leadership during Katrina. Bush promised to get state and local officials what they need and implored residents to evacuate as ordered. He warned that serious flooding could return. His underlying message was that the government will do better this time.
Still, he was also careful not to be rosy during his comments at the emergency response headquarters in Washington.
Even though levees are "stronger than they've ever been," Bush 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."
In a series of appearances on morning network news shows, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said planning, preparation and early evacuations, especially of people in need, were successful. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt declared a public health emergency to ensure that people enrolled in Medicare, Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama continue to receive their health care items and services even after they leave their homes.