WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Tuesday that lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina will be used in the federal government's response to wildfires in Southern California.
Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, right, said, "We're going to continue to stay ahead of this."
"I think there's no question that [there were] a couple of the lessons from Katrina which we have put into effect here," Chertoff said.
"First of all, planning and preparation in advance for these kinds of challenges, so that we have worked together and planned together with the Defense Department and with state authorities well in advance of the crisis. That's been a big help here," Chertoff said before boarding a California-bound Coast Guard jet with Federal Emergency Management Agency Director David Paulison; Mark Everson, president and CEO of the American Red Cross; and Matt Bettenhausen, homeland security adviser to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"Second, we have really flooded the zone as quickly as possible by staging assets to deal both with the firefighting issue and with the response issue," Chertoff said. Watch Chertoff discuss the federal response »
President Bush will visit Southern California on Thursday to see firsthand the damage inflicted by wildfires that have forced more than half a million people to flee their homes, the White House announced Tuesday.
Federal emergency agencies and the White House were heavily criticized for their slow response to Katrina. But White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that since then "integration, additional communication and cooperation amongst the state, local and federal governments have improved."
Chertoff said federal officials began discussing over the weekend the need to have FEMA ready, "and as we saw the evacuation issue becoming more prominent, and the number of people seeking shelter becoming more prominent, we sprang into action yesterday.
"So we've been monitoring the situation continuously. The president's been on top of it. We've been on top of it. And we're going to continue to stay ahead of this as far as we can."
After speaking with Schwarzenegger late Monday, Bush early Tuesday declared an emergency for seven California counties. He said the order "opens up the opportunity for us to send federal assets to help the governor and those who are fighting these fires."
Chertoff said Tuesday that he hadn't waited for the paperwork to be signed before staging assistance.
"We have been moving cots, blankets, other supplies into the area of San Diego so that we can handle any necessity for additional sheltering capacity," he said. "We've also moved air assets to be poised to take flight when we do have the opportunity to deal with the fire, once the winds begin to die down."
Bush said he is sending Chertoff and Paulison to "listen, develop an inventory of supplies and help we can provide."
The Pentagon has set up a plan to help provide shelter for evacuees and offered a battalion of 800 Marines from Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego, to help fight fires. The Navy has offered an Aegis cruiser, a guided missile destroyer and two fast frigates to support evacuation efforts. The Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve have also sent six C-130 aircraft specially set up to drop water and fire suppressant on the fires.
FEMA is using Naval Air Station Moffett Field, a former naval air station in the San Francisco area, as a staging area for supplies and equipment.
Paulison said his agency is shipping 25,000 more cots and blankets and has 130 generators there. E-mail to a friend