Relief Agency: Maintain Evacuation

There is an array of federal departments handling various aspects of the hurricane emergency. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is coordinating efforts to provide housing, medical and other needs. He is urging people who evacuated early not to return to the affected regions, which he describes as very dangerous.

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The Bush administration says it has begun one of the largest emergency relief efforts in US history, and just about every federal agency is sending supplies and personnel to help with rescue and recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff today said he would not attempt to estimate the cost of the unprecedented emergency response or when the relief efforts will be completed. But he vowed that the federal government will work tirelessly to help victims of the devastating storm. And to that end, the administration for the first time has set in motion a new national emergency response plan.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): The plan is designed to bring together all federal resources to increase our ability to quickly get relief to those who need it most.

FESSLER: He said among the many relief efforts, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is moving 39 disaster medical assistance teams from staging areas in Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana into the most heavily impacted regions.

Sec. CHERTOFF: FEMA's also moving supplies and equipment into the hardest-hit areas as quickly as possible, truckloads of water, ice, meals, medical supplies, generators, tents and tarpaulins. There are currently over 1,700 trailer trucks which have been mobilized to move these supplies into position.

FESSLER: The agency's also helping to bus some 25,000 people from the Superdome in New Orleans to the Houston Astrodome and assisting with efforts to find more permanent housing for the tens of thousands of people who've lost their homes. Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta said besides providing immediate help with a shipment of emergency supplies, his department is taking steps to get commerce in the region running again.

Secretary NORM MINETA (Transportation Department): We are working to restore at least minimal transportation infrastructure in the region, and that includes highways, airports, seaports and oil pipelines.

FESSLER: Coast Guard officials say they, too, are working to open shipping channels with crews out looking for obstructions in waterways and replacing navigational aids ripped away by the storm. Coast Guard search-and-rescue teams are also continuing their round-the-clock efforts to save people trapped in their homes. More than 150 people were rescued in Mississippi alone this morning.

Also today, the Pentagon announced it would assist the relief effort by providing personnel and supplies and by moving eight ships into the region for medical and other support. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt says his agency is erecting 40 medical shelters with a capacity of 10,000 beds, and it's preparing to address what are expected to be some serious long-term health concerns.

Secretary MIKE LEAVITT (Department of Health and Human Services): We know that the elderly will need particular care; that there will be mental health requirements and assistance required. And we're deploying teams into this region for the purpose of helping with mental health and child care.

FESSLER: Federal officials say they expect that these efforts will be just the tip of what's required in the months and even years ahead. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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