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Saturday, September 24, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bush monitors Hurricane Rita from Colorado air base

The Associated Press

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — President Bush tracked Hurricane Rita today from an Air Force base in the Rocky Mountain foothills, getting reports on flooding, search and rescue efforts and damage caused by the storm more than 1,000 miles away.

"It comforts me knowing that our federal government is well-organized and well-prepared to deal with Rita," Bush said. "The first order of business now is search and rescue teams -- to pull people out of harm's way."

The president received an hourlong update from military leaders at the U.S. Northern Command and from other federal officials via videoconference.

Bush warned people who evacuated from coastal areas to be careful about returning home.

"The situation is still dangerous because of potential flooding," the president said. "It's important for them to listen carefully to the local authorities about whether or not it is safe for them to return back to their homes. It's going to take awhile for the authorities on the ground to fully understand the impact of the flooding."

In a room with eight televisions, video screens and computers, Bush heard from a range of officials about the storm's impact and the federal response. He was told that the storm slammed ashore along the Texas-Louisiana border very early today with 91 miles per hour sustained winds.

Bush came to the U.S. Northern Command to see firsthand how the military was working with state and local officials in responding to the hurricane, which was expected to dump nearly 25 inches of rain in eastern Texas and western Louisiana over a five-day period.

The trip to Peterson Air Force Base, the Northern Command's home, came as polls find Bush's job approval ratings at the lowest of his presidency. The administration was criticized heavily for what was perceived to be a sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina.

Bush flew over the Gulf Coast two days after Katrina hit on Aug. 29 and visited the area two days later. The White House said Bush stayed away so he and federal officials would not get in the way of recovery efforts.

This time, Bush arrived at the Northern Command a day before Rita hit the shore.

Hurricane response from the military is organized through the Northern Command. It was set up in 2002 as part of the government's moves after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

From Colorado, Bush planned to stop to Austin, Texas, the home of the state's emergency operations center, and then to San Antonio, where he was to spend the night.

He was expected to make additional hurricane-related visits throughout the weekend, but the White House did not say where he would go or when he planned to return to Washington.

In preparation for Rita, the Northern Command sent satellite phones and long-range radios to avoid post-hurricane communication breakdowns.

The Northern Command also made plans to survey damage and recovery needs faster than it did during Katrina.

During Katrina, the Pentagon did not name a military joint task force headed by Lt. Gen. Russel Honore until a couple of days after the hurricane hit. This time, Lt. Gen. Robert Clark was named the task force commander before Rita came ashore.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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