WASHINGTON - Eager to avoid the public pounding he got for his response to Hurricane Katrina, President Bush pledged on Wednesday to be "ready for the worst" as another big hurricane headed for the Gulf Coast.
Across the federal government, officials were advertising the Bush administration's stepped-up response plans for Hurricane Rita as the storm swept across the Gulf of Mexico toward the Texas coastline.
Mr. Bush pleaded with people in the region to comply with mandatory evacuation orders issued in New Orleans and Galveston, Texas. He also said that federal, state and local governments were in close coordination.
"I urge the citizens to listen carefully to the instructions provided by state and local authorities and follow them," Mr. Bush said in a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition. "We hope and pray that Hurricane Rita will not be a devastating storm, but we got to be ready for the worst."
Hundreds of truckloads of water, ice and ready-made meals arrived at locations in Rita's path, and rescue and medical teams were standing by.
"I think we're going to be ready when it does hit land," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff promised.
Lt. Gen. Robert Clark, the commander of The 5th Army, which is based in Texas, was told to be prepared to assume control of a joint military task force for Hurricane Rita, 5th Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Jane Crichton said Wednesday.
Lt. Gen. Clark would command all active-duty forces responding to the hurricane, much as Lt. Gen. Russel Honore has done for those involved in Hurricane Katrina.
A military cargo plane evacuated 25 patients from the Florida Keys, and more than 2,000 National Guard troops were put on active-duty alert to assist as Rita slammed into the string of islands and headed west, perhaps toward Texas.
R. David Paulison, the newly appointed director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said if people don't evacuate before the arrival of Rita, which hit Category 5 strength Wednesday, they could be out of reach of help.
"We know that there is going to be a period of time before help gets to you," Mr. Paulison told reporters in Washington. "So you need to make sure you have your family's plan in place, your evacuation plans in place. Make sure you have food, water, medicine, all the things you need to survive for a couple of days on your own."
Appearing on CBS's The Early Show, Mr. Chertoff said, "Ever since Katrina we've been reloading our resources."
Mr. Chertoff said federal officials are working very closely with their counterparts in Texas.
In an interview on ABC's Good Morning America, Mr. Chertoff said, "The lesson is that when the storm hits, the best place to be is to be out of the path. ... There's plenty of (advance) notice about Rita."
Democratic critics said the preparations for Rita seemed to exceed those for Katrina, and called anew for an independent panel to investigate why.
"It's nice to have the Bush administration recognize the importance of a federal response to Rita, but why weren't they proactively mobilizing and organizing like this for Katrina?" asked Rebecca Kirszner, a spokeswoman for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, of Nevada.
"These are the questions that need to be asked by an independent commission," Ms. Kirszner said.
The supplies, rescue teams and military support arrived as Mr. Bush declared a state of emergency in Florida. Later Wednesday, he also declared emergencies in Texas and Louisiana in advance of Rita's strike.
In his speech, Mr. Bush reiterated that "we're going to stay as long as it takes" to help the communities battered by Katrina recover.
"It's an opportunity to bring new life to neighborhoods that were suffering before the storm," he said.
On Wednesday, Mr. Bush signed legislation allowing the Education Department to waive requirements for repaying Pell Grant and other federal student grants for students forced to withdraw because of the disaster. He also signed a measure to extend certain welfare programs, expiring at the end of the month, and give states more funds and flexibility in spending money to address the needs of families affected by Katrina.
Mr. Bush promised a big role for the federal government but, with conservatives' alarm growing at the fast pace of disaster spending, promised to "make sure your money is spent wisely."
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