WASHINGTON – Stung by criticism that it was slow to respond to Hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration on Thursday sought to portray itself as engaged and in control as a powerful new storm bore down on the Gulf Coast.

President Bush planned a trip to Texas today in advance of Hurricane Rita, which is expected to make landfall there. And Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff called Rita an “incident of national significance,” paving the way for a massive and proactive federal response if state and local officials are overwhelmed. Chertoff also named a top Coast Guard officer to coordinate the federal action in Texas.

During the last killer hurricane, Chertoff waited to take those critical steps until some 36 hours after Hurricane Katrina struck and water began pouring into New Orleans. Some critics have said that the administration’s tardy actions may have cost lives.

Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said Thursday that the government was committed to ensuring a seamless response this time by making lines of command and responsibility clear from the start.

Bush praised citizens for moving out of Rita’s path.

“People understand the need to evacuate more clearly,” he said following a speech on terrorism at the Pentagon.

Bush, who has faced withering criticism for failing to return to Washington from his ranch until two days after Katrina struck, was heading to Texas today and to Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., to monitor the military response to Rita.

R. David Paulison, the acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Thursday that the government was prepared for the newest devastating storm.

For the Department of Homeland Security, Hurricane Rita provides a chance to show that the agency can adequately manage the federal response to a natural catastrophe.

Chertoff has come under scrutiny for failing to follow the government’s National Response Plan – a post-Sept. 11 blueprint for dealing with major disasters and terrorist attacks.

To trigger the proactive federal response, the plan says Chertoff must declare an “incident of national significance” to distinguish that event from more routine disasters handled largely by state and local officials.

As a way of mitigating Chertoff’s delays during Katrina, a department spokesman on Thursday sought to downplay the importance of the designation for Rita and Chertoff’s role in it.

By taking action before Rita makes landfall, Chertoff appears to be following the national response plan. But critics remained worried.

“I’m concerned the secretary doesn’t understand the way these incidents are supposed to be managed,” said Michael Greenberger, a law professor and director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland.

“Have they called into play all the principals? Are they all sitting around the table? And are they dealing with this like the life-threatening emergency it is? Or has all the responsibility been dumped on this individual on the ground? I’m afraid that’s true.”

The person on the ground is Coast Guard Rear Adm. Larry Hereth, a 32-year veteran and port security specialist, whom Chertoff named to coordinate the federal activities in Texas.

Hereth is the second member of the Coast Guard to rise to prominence in this season’s busy hurricane season.

Following the botched response to Katrina by FEMA, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen took over on the ground in New Orleans.

The Coast Guard has won widespread praise for its early rescue operations after Katrina, plucking stranded residents off rooftops in New Orleans.

To read the National Response plan and its Catastrophic Incident Annex, which details what should happen in disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, go to: http://www.dhs.gov/interweb/assetlibrary/NRP(underscore)FullText.pdf

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