The federal government did everything possible to prepare for Hurricane Rita, the nation’s disaster management chief said Friday as authorities declared a public health emergency in two states before the storm’s strike.
From sending mass quantities of supplies to Texas and Louisiana to putting troops on standby, the Bush administration’s mobilization for the storm sharply contrasted with its widely criticized preparations for Hurricane Katrina.
Rita was expected to hit Gulf Coast communities early Saturday as a Category 3 hurricane — down from Category 5, the highest level, earlier this week.
“I think at this point the federal government has done pretty much all that’s possible to do,” Federal Emergency Management Agency Acting Director R. David Paulison said in Washington.
“Right now, we just have to wait out the storm, see exactly where it makes landfall, and then move ahead with our supplies that we have on the ground and our resources,” Paulison said.
President to watch from Northern Command
President Bush visited FEMA headquarters before heading to the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs to monitor the storm. The president scrubbed a short visit to San Antonio on Friday to meet emergency responders who were being relocated as the huge storm shifted course, but he planned to make two stops Saturday in Texas to get a closer look at state and federal response efforts.
“There will be no risk of me getting in the way, I promise you,” said Bush, who was trying to walk a line between helping in a crisis and being seen as interfering.
The trip to Colorado will give Bush an opportunity to assess whether the U.S. military should play a bigger role in major disasters, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.
Meanwhile, Bush’s Cabinet met at the White House to begin assessing the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, which brutalized the Gulf Coast. Frances Fragos Townsend, Bush’s in-house homeland security adviser, is leading an administration investigation of “what went wrong and what went right” in the sluggish federal reaction.
Supplies, military on standby
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt declared a public health emergency in Texas and Louisiana to ease some of the requirements for hurricane victims who seek Medicaid or other assistance after the storm. The government already had moved some emergency medical supplies to Texas, and health officials dispatched to Louisiana for Katrina remained for Rita’s aftermath.
FEMA stockpiled four days’ worth of food, water and ice in Texas and Louisiana, and the Pentagon added 13,273 active-duty troops to the 36,108 National Guard personnel stationed throughout the region, Paulison said.
Forty Coast Guard aircraft, nine cutters and 26 Defense Department helicopters were among the military assets ready to move in as soon as Rita passed though the area, said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. He said they would begin to aid Rita’s victims “as soon as it is safe to do so.”
The Defense Department evacuated by air an estimated 3,200 patients from Beaumont, Texas, and expected to remove another 101 by late Friday, Paulison said. As of Friday afternoon, another 204 patients were waiting to be evacuated, he said.
FEMA sent 7,500 gallons of diesel fuel and several tankers of gasoline to replenish dwindling supplies along Texas’ clogged evacuation routes, Paulison said, adding that the Pentagon “is also standing by ready to move fuel if we need it.”
Gaps in the bulwark
In a sign that there were still gaps in preparations, Houston-area Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said there was not enough fuel for many evacuees — including some whose paths inadvertently took them toward Rita as the storm changed its course.
“We have thousands of people with no fuel or food, no shelters, no cots, no security,” Brady said. “When the winds start hitting tonight those people are going to be stuck.”
In addition, the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio issued an urgent plea for help for local shelters caring for special-needs evacuees from the coast.
“They are in desperate need of both physicians and nurses,” the center said in a statement.
Chertoff said more than 1.5 million people have been evacuated from Rita’s danger zone. Heavy rainfall from two breaches in New Orleans levees caused water to pour into parts of the city still flooded, and largely abandoned, from Hurricane Katrina, he said.
Housing help for Katrina victims
Amid last-minute preparation for Rita, Chertoff and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson promised federal housing assistance to Katrina victims who remain homeless.
The estimated $2 billion program would pay for three-month rental costs — up to $2,358 per family — anywhere in the country for Louisiana and Mississippi homeowners or renters whose residences were destroyed in the storm. They would be eligible for assistance for up to 18 months as FEMA works with state and local authorities to rebuild the devastated communities.
Katrina victims who had been living in public housing or were homeless when the storm hit will receive residential assistance through HUD. As of Friday, more than 747,000 households struck by Katrina had qualified for FEMA assistance, Chertoff said.
Asked if the assistance also would be given to Rita victims who lose their homes, Chertoff said, “Obviously we need to see how Rita plays out.”
Congress has already appropriated $62 billion for the ongoing Katrina relief effort, of which $46 billion remains in FEMA’s disaster relief. Some have estimated that Katrina will cost the government $200 billion or more.