- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), already stretched thin from recovery efforts for Hurricane Katrina, is scrambling to prepare for an equally disastrous hurricane forecast to reach Category 4 strength by this afternoon.

FEMA and state officials began preparation efforts Monday for the first impact of Hurricane Rita in the Florida Keys, racing hundred of trucks with ice, water and military Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) rations to pre-staging sites, and dispatched multiple emergency teams to provide medical care and search and rescue services.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush mobilized 2,400 National Guardsmen and put another 2,000 guardsmen on alert Sunday, evacuated all hospitals and nursing-home patients in Monroe County and issued a mandatory evacuation of Key West before closing the bridge to the island at midnight Monday.

Six Black Hawk helicopters and one Chinook were on standby in West Palm Beach, and out-of-state choppers were staged to respond to Hurricane Rita victims.

“The great work being done locally and with support from the state and federal officials, we’ve responded to this storm, I think, in a way that Floridians can be proud,” Mr. Bush said at a press conference yesterday.

R. David Paulison, acting FEMA director, said state evacuation efforts were thorough, and he expects the same cooperation with Texas.

“I’ve been on the phone with [Mr. Bush] on a regular basis. He is very pleased with the job we’ve done. Florida, like Texas, has an outstanding emergency management system, and they’re easy to work with,” Mr. Paulison said.

As Rita grew from a tropical storm to a Category 2 hurricane on a path toward Texas and Louisiana, FEMA began relocating more than 8,000 Katrina evacuees who were sheltered in Texas to other locations, while rounding up water and food for new shelters.

Meanwhile, FEMA officials set up staging areas in Texas with 90 truckloads of water and ice and eight trucks full of MREs, and dispatched 18 urban search-and-rescue task forces and disaster medical assistance teams.

“Texas also has an outstanding emergency management system. They are well prepared,” Mr. Paulison said. “They are ready for the hurricane. They know it’s not going to be easy, but they’re ready to go.”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry will begin mandatory evacuations today in Galveston, Corpus Christi, Houston and San Antonio and has recalled the Texas National Guard from Louisiana along with other emergency personnel and equipment. Forecasters currently predict Rita will make landfall near Galveston, a city that was leveled by a hurricane 105 years ago this month.

“For the past three weeks, our emergency personnel have been assisting our neighbors devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and over the last year our state has heightened preparations for dealing with a catastrophic storm. While we continue to hope that day never comes, Texas must be ready if it does,” Mr. Perry said.

FEMA officials are in place at Texas’ operation center, which went on full-alert status today with 34 state agencies on site round-the-clock, a spokeswoman for the governor told the Houston Chronicle.

“FEMA has already been part of this. They have offered whatever support we need,” Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt said. Texas is not Louisiana. You won’t see that breakdown occurring here.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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