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Is FEMA ready for Rita?

As it braces for Rita, the  Federal Emergency Management Agency promises to avoid the slow, muddled response  that had such disastrous consequences when Hurricane Katrina hit. NBC's Chip Reid reports.

In Florida, federal officials says the response to Hurricane Rita is already in high gear. Massive quantities of water, ice and food are moving into position. Medical and search-and-rescue teams are ready to roll.

It's all part of an effort by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to avoid the slow, muddled response to Hurricane Katrina that had such disastrous consequences.

R. David Paulison, the new head of FEMA, says this time will be different.

"We are not assuming anything," says Paulison. "We are going to be hooked at the hip with emergency managers to make sure that we are prepared."

But with Rita now gaining strength and people as far away as Texas preparing for a major hurricane, some disaster response experts are wondering if is FEMA ready.

"It's going to be a very, very tough situation and there just aren't going to be the resources there to devote to yet another disaster," says Greg Shaw, a disaster managment expert at George Washington University Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management.

Shaw says that's because the federal government focused so heavily on terrorism after 9/11 and responding to natural disasters became a low priority.

Critics say that was compounded by putting political appointees with little experience, like former FEMA director Michael Brown, in key leadership positions.

"The lack of leadership at FEMA was a huge, huge problem," says disaster response expert and former FEMA official Morrie Goodman, "which hopefully now has been overcome."

FEMA's new head has spent his entire career in disaster response and received good grades last week for his, and FEMA's, quick response to Hurricane Ophelia on the Carolina coast.

Experts say one reason to be hopeful about FEMA is that the career workers — the people out in the field doing the hard, dirty work — are as good at their jobs as they could possibly be. And with sufficient resources and good leadership, many are cautiously optimistic that FEMA can be turned around, perhaps even in time for Rita.