Federal Agencies in High Gear Ahead of Rita

Federal agencies are taking final steps to prepare for landfall of Hurricane Rita, expected by Saturday. The FEMA operations center in Washington, D.C., is shipping supplies, while the Pentagon is coordinating requests for and deployment of troops to the Gulf Coast.

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Before he headed to Colorado to oversee military preparations for the approaching hurricane, President Bush dropped into the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington today. Workers there are keeping tabs on where Rita is headed, trying to send assistance to all the right places. They hope to avoid much of the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina. The government has already declared a public health emergency for communities in the path of Hurricane Rita. NPR's Pam Fessler was also at FEMA today.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

Dozens of workers from FEMA, the Coast Guard, the Department of Energy and other agencies monitored phones and computer screens this afternoon at FEMA's Emergency Operations Center in Washington. As Hurricane Rita approaches, officials are trying to provide last-minute help to the Gulf Coast region.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Captain GARY LABUDA(ph) (Pentagon Liaison): FEMA national DOD desk. Captain Labuda. Can I help you?

FESSLER: Captain Gary Labuda is the Pentagon's liaison to FEMA headquarters. He sits at a cubicle by the wall. Labuda's job is to make sure that local requests for aid get fed to the Defense Department. He says over the past 24 hours, much of that has involved airlifting medical patients out of harm's way. The Pentagon is also getting equipment ready to help with recovery efforts once the storm hits.

Capt. LABUDA: OK. Are these for the long-range communication teams?

FESSLER: Labuda says the operations center is especially busy today, more so than in the past. The federal government was widely criticized for its slow response to Hurricane Katrina. Today, this place is filled with activity. Large screens on the wall show an ongoing videoconference call connecting Washington with emergency officials in Texas, Louisiana and Florida. Bill Lokey, the federal coordinating officer based in Baton Rouge, is on the screen, giving an update.

Mr. BILL LOKEY (Federal Coordinating Officer): The governor had a request to Admiral Allen relative to military support. We've been staffing that with the DCO, and that...

FESSLER: Just a few minutes earlier, a surprise visitor. President Bush passed through this center to get his own hurricane update and to encourage those who've been working here around the clock.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Again, I want to thank the people here in Washington who are working with the folks out in the field to do everything we possibly can to prepare for this second big storm that's coming into the Gulf of Mexico. Thank you all.

FESSLER: He said the federal government's job is to help state and local official save lives, and then to get affected communities up and running again after the storm. The preparations are unprecedented, in large part because of the lessons learned from Katrina. There are already 13,000 active-duty military troops and 37,000 National Guard personnel in the region. Medical and urban search and rescue teams have also been deployed. Acting FEMA director David Paulison said there's four days worth of food, ice and water already pre-positioned in the Gulf region. He said at this point, officials are probably as prepared as they're going to be.

Mr. DAVID PAULISON (Acting Director, FEMA): The federal government has done pretty much all that's possible to do. 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.

FESSLER: He warned, though, that those caught in the path of the storm might have to wait a few days before emergency responders can reach them. And he said that evacuees, now estimated at more than 1.5 million people, should stay away until officials say it's safe to come home. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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