WASHINGTON — Employing lessons learned from his administration's woeful response to Hurricane Katrina, President Bush toured fire-ravaged Southern California on Thursday and pledged that the power of the federal government will help victims recover from the wildfires.
"We're not going to forget you in Washington, D.C.," Bush vowed after a tour of fire damage in Escondido, Calif. "We want the people to know there's a better day ahead; that today your life may look dismal, but tomorrow life is going to get better, and to the extent that the federal government can help you, we want to do so."
Even critics of the White House say the administration responded swiftly to the wildfires, a sharp contrast to its handling of Katrina's devastating impact on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast two years ago.
"It's too early to tell, but so far they (the administration) certainly look better," said I.M. Destler, a University of Maryland political scientist who specializes in homeland security. "A learning has taken place in terms of public response."
The president toured damaged areas with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday after White House officials set in motion the apparatus to allow the state to receive federal manpower, hardware and financial assistance to combat and recover from the wildfires.
Bush issued an emergency declaration for California an hour after Schwarzenegger made the request late Monday. The declaration gave the president the authority to direct federal agencies to provide support to the state.
When Schwarzenegger asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide individual assistance Tuesday, the agency complied by establishing programs for housing assistance and to help pay for property losses. The programs were up and running Wednesday.
Later that day, Bush issued a major disaster declaration, which gave California more help in clearing debris and providing long-term assistance to individuals: food coupons, counseling and unemployment assistance.
The president, who was harshly criticized for his low-altitude Air Force One fly-over inspection of Katrina damage while en route to Washington from an interrupted summer vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, also wasted no time in dispatching administration officials to California. FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff were there by Tuesday.
The military was also deployed quickly, with 2,492 National Guard members engaged in firefighting. C-130 aircraft have flown at least five sorties, dropping 131,996 pounds of retardant on the Poomacha, Calif., fire. The Department of Defense has provided 18 fire engines, 18 helicopters and 14 fixed-wing aircraft, said Fran Townsend, the assistant to the president for homeland security.
"This is really a good example of what we consider a strengthened, rebuilt, new FEMA, leaning forward, proactive and ready to respond to what state and local officials need," Townsend said aboard Air Force One.
Some experts in natural disasters said it was unfair to compare the wildfires with Katrina. The fires, in little more than four days, have scorched about 427,000 acres — 70 percent of them in San Diego County — and destroyed 2,205 structures, according to Townsend. At least eight people have died.
Katrina, on the other hand, flooded about 90,000 square miles of the Gulf Coast, killed 1,695 people, displaced 770,000 people and caused $6 billion in damage to homes, businesses and government property.
"One of the big differences between the wildfires and Katrina is infrastructure: The roads are good here, there's power, people are going about," said Mark Ghilarducci, a vice president for the consulting firm headed by James Lee Witt, President Clinton's FEMA director. "It's a catastrophe here, but it isn't a true catastrophic disaster in terms of complexity and size. This is a disaster with a small 'D.' "
Still, Ghilarducci praised the White House for engaging with state officials early and staying on top of the situation.
Leon Panetta, a White House chief of staff under Clinton, called the administration's early response to the wildfires impressive but said the real test would come in the follow-through once the flames were extinguished.
"In the end, the lesson isn't seen in the publicity or the tours," he said. "It's how do you coordinate assistance so victims feel they're getting the help they need. That's the toughest."
Bush shrugged off comparisons of his handling the wildfires with Katrina, saying: "There's all kinds of time for historians to compare."
The president seemed to take a veiled shot at Louisiana Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who's complained at times about federal Katrina aid, when he praised Schwarzenegger's handling of the wildfire crisis.
"We got a big problem out there, and I appreciate his leadership," Bush said of the Republican governor. "Makes a significant difference when you have somebody in the statehouse willing to take the lead."