WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush urged Americans yesterday to cut back on unnecessary travel to make up for fuel shortages caused by Hurricane Rita.

Bush said the government was ready to release fuel from its emergency oil stockpile to alleviate high prices. And he suggested he would name a federal official to oversee the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast – after local officials first produce a vision for their rebuilt communities.

The president spoke after he attended a meeting at the Energy Department in which officials told him they still were trying to assess the damage to oil production and refineries in Rita’s path.

Bush said he would get a personal report from local officials today when he visits the area around the refinery towns of Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas.

Meanwhile, he encouraged motorists to conserve energy and said he has directed federal agencies to do the same.

“If it makes sense for the citizen out there to curtail nonessential travel, it darn sure makes sense for federal employees,” Bush said. “We can encourage employees to car pool or use mass transit, and we can shift peak electricity use to off-peak hours. There’s ways for the federal government to lead when it comes to conservation.”

The White House also will be looking at ways to conserve, press secretary Scott McClellan said, although that doesn’t include curtailing the president’s plans to return to the region this week.

Bush returned Sunday from a three-day trip in which he stopped in four cities that have been a base for government response to the storm. As he has in most of his previous trips to the areas hit by the hurricanes, Bush spent most of the time in meetings with state and local officials – many of them reporting by videoconference.

On Saturday, in a visit to the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., some of Bush’s briefers were linked from the White House situation room steps from the Oval Office.

Still, McClellan said it is important that the president get a firsthand look at emergency operations and lift the spirits of workers there.

“I know the president’s visit yesterday to the joint field office in Baton Rouge was very much appreciated,” McClellan said. “You saw the enthusiasm from all those who have been working 24/7 to help the people of the region rebuild their lives and recover.”

Sixteen Texas oil refineries remained shut down after the storm, and crews found significant damage to at least one in the Port Arthur area, said Energy Department spokesman Craig Stevens.

Bush said Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, who briefed him along with Interior Secretary Gale Norton, is working with Houston officials to help get trucks into that city to help refill sold-out gas stations. He said he also instructed Bodman to consider how the Strategic Petroleum Reserve can be used to help lower gas prices, with about two-thirds of Americans responding to recent polls saying high gas prices are causing them financial hardship.

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