US President George W. Bush, seeking to polish his tarnished image as a strong leader in times of crisis, vowed on Friday to keep a close eye on Hurricane Rita but stay out of the way of response efforts.
Stung by the fierce criticism of Washington's response to killer Hurricane Katrina, Bush postponed a trip to his adoptive home state of Texas and hastened here to a military base for a briefing on Rita's destructive power.
The president, who has suggested that the US armed forces must have a broader role in future disaster relief, came to the Colorado Springs headquarters of the Pentagon's Northern Command, which was created after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to guard the US territory.
Bush took in a roughly hour-long briefing on rainfall and flooding projections linked to Rita and was expected to have dinner with military officials here before traveling to Texas yesterday.
Earlier, the president decided at the last minute to cancel a scheduled visit to San Antonio, Texas to avoid getting "in the way" of emergency workers mustered to mount a swift response effort in Rita's aftermath.
Spokesman Scott McClellan said the search-and-rescue teams with whom Bush had been set to meet in San Antonio were redeploying to an area closer to where the powerful storm was set to make landfall along the Texas-Louisiana coast.
"We didn't want to slow that down," said McClellan, who had insisted for days that the president's frequent photo-opportunities in storm-ravaged areas have virtually no impact on efforts to respond to the powerful storms.
Bush planned to travel to Texas yesterday for a visit to a state emergency response center and to spend the night on an air force base.
Before leaving Washington, Bush visited the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and repeatedly tackled criticisms that his frequent photo-opportunities were sidelining rescue workers.
"One thing I won't do is get in the way," the president said.
Asked whether he was overcompensating for his administration's widely assailed Katrina response, Bush replied: "There will be no risk of me getting in the way, I promise you."
"We're going to make sure that we're not in the way of the operations. What I am going to do is observe the relationship between the state and local government, particularly out in Colorado Springs," he said.
"Our job is to assist, prepare for and assist the state and local people to save lives and to help these people get back on their feet," Bush said.
"NorthCom is the main entity that interfaces, that uses federal assets, federal troops, to act with federal and state government," he said. "It's an important relationship and I need to know how it works better."
Rita threatened Texas and Louisiana three weeks after Hurricane Katrina crushed the Gulf Coast Aug. 29, killing more than 1,000 people.