White House Briefing: McClellan Responds to Criticism Related to Hurricane

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By: E&P Staff

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan met with reporters today, explained what the president plans to do about hurricane relief, and faced questions about whether that relief could have come stronger and sooner–and if, perhaps, Washington could have done more to prevent this tragedy.

Relevant excerpts follow:

Q People on the ground, though are questioning why it’s taken three days or more for federal help to arrive, notwithstanding all of the preparations. There’s considerable bitterness in some places. We had one woman ask on camera last night, where’s the cavalry? And then there’s been editorial criticism across the country of the President for not acting sooner, or not coming back sooner. What do you say to all that?

MR. McCLELLAN: I can understand how frustrated people are in the region who have been affected by this. There are some immediate priorities that we must remain focused on. First and foremost, that is saving lives. And second, right along with that, is sustaining lives. That’s why the federal government is working in close partnership with state and local authorities. This is a massive undertaking by the federal government. It is unprecedented. We continue — remember, we pre-positioned assets in the region prior to the storm hitting. You have more than 50 disaster medical assistance teams in the region. You have some 28-plus search and rescue teams deployed in the region. Those efforts are ongoing.

I can understand people who have not received the help they need being frustrated at this point. It’s going to take time to get help to some people. We’ve got to prioritize what the needs are, and that’s exactly what the federal government is doing. And we are going to continue moving resources and assets into the region to help those who are in need. And we — if you look at what the Department of Transportation, for instance, has done, they have moved I think approximately 1,000 truckloads containing more than — nearly 7 million Meals Ready To Eat to the region. They have moved millions of gallons of water, 15,000-plus tarps, 10,000-plus rolls of plastic sheeting, 3.4 million pounds of ice that they have helped to transport to those who are in need of those supplies.

Q But none of that means anything to somebody who has been living on an interstate overpass for the last three days, without food or water, or any kind of assistance, local or federal.

MR. McCLELLAN: As we were passing over the region yesterday, Bill, we saw people that were standing on those highways, those highways that just disappeared into the water. We saw people that were on rooftops. We saw helicopters in the distance engaged in search and rescue operations as we were passing through the region.

Our concern, first and foremost, is with the people who have been displaced or affected otherwise by this major catastrophe. It is a major catastrophe and there is a major response to this catastrophe. And the federal government will continue working to do everything in our power to get help to those in need. But we certainly understand the frustration coming from people on the ground who are in need of help and we will continue working to get them the assistance that they need. We appreciate the efforts of all those in the region who are working round-the-clock to make sure that they are getting help.

Q Are you going to bring back any National Guardsmen from Iraq to help?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that the military talked about that a little bit yesterday. I think you’re talking about two separate priorities and we’re addressing both. And they’ll be talking later today, I think, about some of the ongoing increase in the number of National Guard units that are being deployed to the New Orleans area to meet the security and law enforcement needs that are on the ground.

Q Do you have enough troops on hand?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that they’ve indicated that, yes.

Q Scott, I know the President obviously is focused on response efforts right now, but can I talk to you about preparedness? Is the President satisfied with the way assets were pre-positioned, specifically in those areas like New Orleans and Mississippi, New Orleans particularly, a place that was identified by the Red Cross as being particularly vulnerable because of its geographical location. Is the President satisfied?

MR. McCLELLAN: One thing that I think is important to keep in mind at this time, this is the immediate aftermath of a major catastrophe. This is a time when the whole country needs to come together to help those in the region. And that’s where our focus is. This is not a time to get into any finger pointing or politics or anything of that nature. This is a time to make sure all our resources available are focused where they need to be, and that is on the people who have been displaced or the people who have been otherwise affected by this natural disaster. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.

In terms of the hurricane, itself, remember we took a number of steps prior to the hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast region. We — the President issued disaster declarations for the states in the region prior to the hurricane hitting shore. That enabled FEMA to fully mobilize all the resources needed to pre-position assets, like disaster medical assistance teams and search and rescue teams, so that they would be able to quickly deploy and help.

Q Scott, there’s already a line of discussion going on about the funding of projects prior to this, whether projects in New Orleans, in particular, were under funded because of the Iraq war or for other reasons. Is there a — do you find any of this criticism legitimate? Do you think there is any second-guessing to be done now about priorities, given that the New Orleans situation was sort of obvious to a lot of the experts?

MR. McCLELLAN: As I indicated, this is not a time for politics. This is a time for the nation to come together and help those in the Gulf Coast region. And that’s where our focus is. This is not a time for finger-pointing or playing politics. And I think the last thing that the people who have been displaced or the people who have been affected need is people seeking partisan gain in Washington. And so if that’s what you’re talking about, that’s one thing.

Now, if you’re talking about specific areas, if you’re talking about specific areas, I think I would be glad to talk about some of those, if that’s what you want. I don’t know what specific areas you’re —

Q I’m talking about policy. I’m talking about the SELA project, for instance, is one some people cite where they felt they needed $60 million in the current ’06 fiscal year, they were given $10 million, those types of projects. And a lot of —

MR. McCLELLAN: I’m sorry, which project —

Q SELA — Southeast Louisiana flood control —

MR. McCLELLAN: Flood control has been a priority of this administration from day one. We have dedicated an additional $300 million over the last few years for flood control in New Orleans and the surrounding area. And if you look at the overall funding levels for the Army Corps of Engineers, they have been slightly above $4.5 billion that has been signed by the President.

Q Local people were asking for more money over the last couple of years. They were quoted in local papers in 2003 and 2004, are saying that they were told by federal officials there wasn’t enough money because it was going to Iraq expenditures.

MR. McCLELLAN: You might want to talk to General Strock, who is the commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, because I think he’s talked to some reporters already and talked about some of these issues. I think some people maybe have tried to make a suggestion or imply that certain funding would have prevented the flooding from happening, and he has essentially said there’s been nothing to suggest that whatsoever, and it’s been more of a design issue with the levees.

Q Without getting into finger-pointing or partisan politics or anything, would you concede that, given the difficult reality on the ground there now, that more could have, or should have been done to have resources available, to move quickly or to be there? Or is it your position that this is simply the nature of responding to disasters of this scale, that it’s going to take days or weeks to get —

MR. McCLELLAN: Very legitimate question. I think that that’s something that, over time, will be able to be addressed and looked at. I mean, you’re still, right now, trying to assess all the damage and destruction that’s been done. Now is the time to remain focused on the response and recovery efforts, and that’s what we’re doing. There will be a time for politics later; there will be a time to look at all these other issues and do more of a critique or assessment of the response efforts. But right now we’re making sure that we’re doing everything in our power to respond to this natural disaster.

Q Scott, since the briefing started, I’ve gotten a number of emails from people saying that correspondents who’ve been in Baghdad and New Orleans say Baghdad feels safer to operate in; people saying that it’s absolute chaos in the streets; message boards on the Internet are going crazy. They’re frustrated that you’re deflecting this to FEMA. Is the White House properly, adequately concerned? And can you tell us —

MR. McCLELLAN: Deflecting what to FEMA?

Q You’re deflecting all specifics to the FEMA briefing.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I’m not. I’ve given you some updates, but they are the ones who are in charge of operational aspects on the ground. And the Department of Homeland Security is in charge of the operational aspects from Washington, D.C. And they’re pulling together officials that will have the most updated information to you. So your characterization is just wrong, Jessica.

Q Why have helicopters stopped flying over New Orleans?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, the people on the ground will be able to provide you with the latest information on that. As I would with any engagement abroad in terms of operational activities, as you mentioned, with the military, the people who are in the best position to give you those updates are the ones who are overseeing the operational activities. That is being done by the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, and it’s being done by FEMA on the ground in the region. So that information is being provided to you all.

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