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Bush administration touts Rita readiness
Updated: 2005-09-21 20:06

The Bush administration is advertising its stepped-up response plans for Hurricane Rita before the storm hits the Gulf Coast, eager to avoid the public pounding it got for its reaction to Hurricane Katrina, the Associated Press reported.

Dean Hutton, left, and Jonathan Edgar sit in a bus stop shelter as the ocean waves crash around them Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2005 as Hurricane Rita passes near the island. [AP]

Hundreds of truckloads of water, ice and ready-made meals arrived Tuesday at locations in Rita's path along the Florida and Texas coastlines, and rescue and medical teams were standing by as the storm swept across the Gulf of Mexico.

"I think we're going to be ready when it does hit land," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff promised Wednesday.

A military cargo plane evacuated 25 patients from the Florida Keys, and more than 2,000 National Guard troops were put on active-duty alert to assist as Rita slammed into the string of islands and headed west, perhaps toward Texas.

R. David Paulison, the newly appointed director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, urged local residents in Rita's path to evacuate to avoid the horrific living conditions at emergency shelters in New Orleans that followed Katrina's impact three weeks ago.

He said Rita, like Katrina, could increase in strength to a Category 4 storm, the second highest notch on the 1-5 hurricane scale.

"We know that there is going to be a period of time before help gets to you," Paulison told reporters in Washington. "So you need to make sure you have your family's plan in place, your evacuation plans in place. Make sure you have food, water, medicine, all the things you need to survive for a couple of days on your own."

Appearing on CBS's "The Early Show," Chertoff declared, "Ever since Katrina we've been reloading our resources." He said federal officials are working very closely with their counterparts in Texas.

In an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America," Chertoff said, "The lesson is that when the storm hits, the best place to be is to be out of the path. ... There's plenty of (advance) notice about Rita."

Democratic critics said the preparation for Rita seemed to exceed those for Katrina, and called anew for an independent panel to investigate why.

"It's nice to have the Bush administration recognize the importance of a federal response to Rita, but why weren't they proactively mobilizing and organizing like this for Katrina?" said Rebecca Kirszner, a spokeswoman for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

"These are the questions that need to be asked by an independent commission," Kirszner said.

The supplies, rescue teams and military support arrived as President Bush declared a state of emergency in Florida.

The majority of response aid for Katrina was deployed after Bush declared an emergency in Louisiana on Aug. 27, Homeland Security Department officials have said.

Those supplies — meals, water, ice, cots, blankets — began arriving in Gulf Coast states on Aug. 28, the day before Katrina struck, and several days worth of sustenance also was dispatched to the New Orleans Superdome as the storm blew in. But flooding that followed Katrina prevented additional supplies from getting into the city, Homeland Security officials have said.

Pentagon officials also moved to get out front of Rita. An estimated 220,000 National Guard troops nationwide were available to respond to Rita should the need arise, the Defense Department said. About 1,100 National Guard troops from Texas who had been serving in the Katrina-ravaged region returned to their home state to be available for duty if Rita strikes there. Several Navy amphibious assault ships were deployed offshore to assist relief efforts in Rita's wake.

By comparison, 10,000 National Guard troops were dispatched across the Gulf Coast three days before Katrina's landfall, numbers that two weeks later had swollen to about 41,000 Guard members and 17,000 active-duty military scattered across Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. At one point, the Pentagon put 319,000 Army National Guard and Air National Guard personnel on standby for Katrina response.

The Navy directed its hospital ship, the USS Comfort, to the Katrina-battered coast on Sept. 2, four days after that hurricane hit. The ship was still in the region Tuesday and poised to help response operations for Rita.

Paulison said the federal response to Rita would depend "much more heavily" on the Pentagon and the National Guard than it did initially for Katrina. But he said the biggest difference in comparing the government's response between the two storms would be stepped-up communications among state, local and federal authorities — which was riddled with problems when Katrina hit.

"We are taking communications very seriously and I think that's going to be the big difference — making sure we understand what the state needs are and once the hurricane hits, we understand what issues we have to deal with," Paulison said.

"This is a big storm," he said of Rita. "We are going to prepare our communications but also we are not going to assume anything at all. We are going to make sure we are ready to go, and make sure that the states are ready and the locals are ready."

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