Bush signs major disaster declaration

WASHINGTON (CBS/AP) -- President Bush continued to step up federal engagement in the California wildfire emergency Wednesday, signing a major disaster declaration that funnels money to people whose property losses aren't covered by insurance.

Mr. Bush said he wants the people of Southern California to hear a message loud and clear from Washington.

"Americans all across this land care deeply about them," the president said after a Cabinet meeting convened to coordinate federal efforts. "We're concerned about their safety. We're concerned about their property."

Mr. Bush had already declared a federal emergency on Tuesday for seven California counties, triggering short-term federal help. On Wednesday, responding to a late-night request from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mr. Bush went a step further and issued the broader major disaster declaration.

Such declarations set in motion long-term federal recovery programs, some requiring matches from state coffers, to help state and local governments, families, individuals and certain nonprofit organizations recover. The assistance varies from direct aid for uninsured losses to help with rebuilding infrastructure.

At the Cabinet meeting, Mr. Bush and a couple dozen top administration officials heard from FEMA chief David Paulison and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Mr. Bush had dispatched the two to the region on Tuesday and they gave the group an update from there.

"I believe the effort is well-coordinated," the president told reporters at the end of the meeting. "I know we're getting the manpower and assets on the ground that have been requested by the state and local governments."

Mr. Bush said Schwarzenegger had told him he has everything he needs so far from Washington.

"I assured him that if he needs anything and we're able to provide it, we will do so," the president said.

Mr. Bush is traveling to California on Thursday to see for himself how the disaster is unfolding and how Washington's efforts to help are working. Eager to avoid a repeat of the slow and spotty federal performance in the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the president canceled a planned trip to St. Louis to respond to the wildfires.

Exhausted firefighters hoped fighting the blazes would become easier Wednesday with an expected slackening of fierce Santa Ana winds that have stoked the explosive blazes.

In several different ways, Mr. Bush emphasized the scope and speed of the federal response, and threw in a mention of how Mother Nature can upend the best-laid plans.

"I wish we could control the wind," he said. "The federal government will do everything it can to put out the fires."

Earlier Wednesday, Paulison promised that the federal government's response to the wildfires would be an improvement over its handling of Katrina. "This is a new FEMA," he said.

"We're going to make sure this operation runs as smoothly as possible given the size of this disaster," Paulison said.

Paulison said that people who lack paperwork to document their damage claims because they so hurriedly fled their homes should not worry.

"We can work through that," he said. "The same thing happened in Katrina."

He also disputed claims there were insufficient aircraft available to spray fire retardant in the afflicted areas, noting the obstacle that gale force winds were providing.

"There's quite a bit of resources on the ground right now. Part of the issue is the winds," Paulison told CBS' The Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm. "The airplanes can fly in the winds, but when they disperse the fire retardant and the water, it dissipates so quickly that it's not effective."

White House press secretary Dana Perino said the federal government is applying lessons learned from the Katrina relief controversy that deeply damaged Mr. Bush's presidency, by talking more quickly with local officials and getting the word out to the public faster.

"There's increased coordination and communication and earlier communication and coordination between the federal, state and local governments," she said. "We have learned those lessons and those lessons are being applied."