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Bush Visits Areas Hit by Hurricane Rita

With America's Gulf Coast still reeling from the impact of two hurricanes - first Katrina and now Rita - attention is focusing on ways to make the government response to future major natural disasters quicker and more efficient. One idea under consideration is an expanded formal role for the military.

As the victims of Hurricane Rita move from pure survival to cataloguing their losses, President Bush is touring hard hit areas in a show of support.

As the last raindrops stopped and the skies began to clear, Mr. Bush was already in the Gulf region, meeting with emergency workers and officials in two states: Texas and Louisiana.

In San Antonio, Texas, he got a briefing at an air force base where a general involved in the rescue effort said the nation has to come up with a better, more coordinated plan to deal with major disasters. Major General John White referred to the initial response just weeks ago to Hurricane Katrina as - in his words - "a train wreck" and said something must be done.

President Bush - who has said he takes responsibility for the flawed federal response to Katrina - made clear he agrees the military should take the lead in dealing with catastrophes. However, U.S. law restricts the military role in such instances, and the president said Congress will have to decide when and how to shift the responsibility for disaster relief from civilians to soldiers.

"Clearly in the case of a terrorist attack, that would be the case," Mr. Bush says. "But is there a natural disaster of a certain size that would enable the Defense Department to become the lead agency coordinating and leading the response effort?"

When the extent of the problems surrounding the initial response to Hurricane Katrina became clear, the president replaced the civilian then in charge - the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency - with a top coast guard officer, Admiral Thad Allen.

The change followed days of criticism of the administration's handling of the disaster, with critics charging the president wasted precious days and hours. But as Rita neared the Gulf Coast, Mr. Bush was already on the move. He went first to the military command center in Colorado, then to his home state of Texas just after the storm and finally on to Louisiana

President Bush went to a converted department store in Baton Rouge that now is a headquarters for federal emergency workers handling issues like housing and health care. He got an update on the situation around the state and urged those displaced by the two storms to be patient and stay away until they are told it is safe to return.

"It is important there be an orderly process," Mr. Bush says. "It is important there be an assessment of infrastructure. And it is important for the people of the affected areas of Louisiana to listen carefully to the governor and local authorities."

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco has had her differences with the federal government over Hurricane Katrina. But she was at the president's side in Baton Rouge and said this time all levels of government worked together.

"I'm sorry that we brought you back under another stressful event," Ms. Blanco says. "But we do appreciate your support and I do want to tell you how much we appreciated watching all the integrated forces at work as one."

The president is expected to return to the region in the coming days, perhaps before the end of the week.