FEMA Presence in Texas Prepares for Rita Response

9-23-05 - As thousands of coastal Texans rush to get inland before Hurricane Rita strikes the coast, federal officials are monitoring the storm from Austin, waiting for landfall and the expected need for federal relief efforts.

Preparations have slowed for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has stationed water, ice, ready-to-eat meals, medical supplies and emergency personnel to be sent to the coast as needed when powerful Hurricane Rita makes landfall.

FEMA has set up a field office in Austin, where officials have spent several days planning their relief efforts. The storm slowed to a still-powerful Category 4 hurricane with winds at about 140 mph.

On Thursday, truckloads of supplies, emergency personnel and search and rescue crews were stationed in various locations around the state as FEMA logistical planners monitored the storm's progress from a temporary field office in Austin.

Gov. Rick Perry and state officials are leading state operations and FEMA officials have repeated that they are in Texas to follow the state's lead.

The FEMA field office was set up two weeks ago to aid in Texas' response in sheltering Hurricane Katrina evacuees, but now is doubling as a base for Rita preparations.

The FEMA field office is housing hundreds of officials from the National Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a congressional liaison to keep lawmakers updated on developments.

They're preparing for cleanup efforts and infrastructure repair along the coast and are ready to help storm victims recover, with aid such as home repair and replacing personal items.

So far, 45 truckloads of water, 45 truckloads of ice, and 25 truckloads of MREs, or meals ready to eat, are on standby in Texas _ at staging areas far enough to be out of danger, yet close enough to move relief efforts quickly.

More than 400 medical personnel and 14 Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces, are stationed in Texas and ready to be deployed.

The U.S. Coast Guard has pre-positioned search and rescue, pollution response and aids to navigation assets to respond after the storm and Coast Guard Disaster Area Response Teams will be stationed in Houston. In addition, the American Red Cross has resources to deliver 750,000 meals a day after Hurricane Rita makes landfall, while keeping resources in place to assist Katrina evacuees.

President Bush on Wednesday declared an emergency for Texas, freeing up federal emergency funds three days before the storm was expected to make landfall. Bush made plans to fly to Texas on Friday to review the preparations for Rita.

In Louisiana, where Bush acknowledged failure in the federal government's slow response to Katrina, an emergency declaration didn't come until the day Katrina reached land. So far, the death toll from Katrina has topped 1,000.