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Katrina has taken a toll on emergency responders

SLIDELL, La.—Hurricane Katrina has taken a toll not only on the Gulf Coast, but also on the businesses, emergency workers and charities from across the country that routinely hustle into a region after disaster strikes.

The crew from Poor Boy's, for example, has been working 15 hours a day without pause since arriving in this land of swamp and pines. Shimmying up trees or riding 40 feet over traffic in cherry pickers, the workers from the Fair Play, Mo., contractor prune and knock down trees to clear the way for the local power company to restring electrical lines that Katrina ripped down.

"We'll be here two or three more weeks," said Poor Boy's supervisor John Simmons. "I suppose if another hurricane came through, we could go out again. But the guys would complain. They're already tired."

Katrina knocked America's mix of emergency responders on its heels. And even if it's regained its balance, the network of disaster fighters would face any fresh crisis fatigued, its endurance in question.

Still, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, widely maligned for a slow and ineffectual response to Katrina, says it's ready for whatever nature or humanity has in store.

"Is everybody a little tired? Sure," FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney said. "Does that mean we're not going to go when we get the call? No."

Likewise, state emergency management agencies across the country have lent expertise and elbow grease to the areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama that are reeling from the hurricane's destruction. But they all say they have enough in reserve to respond if disaster struck at home.

They say they could even help other states again should a new calamity emerge. It's just getting tougher to do so with every passing day that their crews toil along the steamy and chaotic Gulf Coast.

Georgia, for instance, has sent search-and-rescue teams and other disaster pros to Mississippi. And it's ready to help the Carolinas if a sizable storm hits there.

"But we can't deploy everything," said Lisa Ray, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. "We would have to use prudence in how we share our resources."

Florida, which had braced for the possibility of Katrina barreling through its Panhandle region, sent various disaster crews west on Interstate 10 to Mississippi. Then it rotated crews on a weekly basis, partly to keep them fresh and partly to keep them in reserve for a Florida disaster.

"We could go, make a difference and get back," said Mike Stone, a spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Of the country's National Guard forces, 100,000 are deployed overseas and 50,000 have been activated to play a crucial role in restoring order and delivering supplies to the areas Katrina hit. The National Guard said another 300,000 troops were home in reserve, ready for action abroad or the next civil emergency

"We have more people if we need them," said Lt. Col. Mike Milord, a Guard spokesman.

Military analysts said those seemingly surplus numbers didn't tell the whole story. Guard troops have been put into action steadily in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past four years. That's strained the system of "citizen soldiers," many of whom signed up expecting occasional duty and then spent multiple year-long rotations in war zones.

"This may be more what they signed up for, helping out other people here at home. But it still adds to the strain," said Owen Cote, a security studies specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

William Waugh, a disaster-management specialist and public-administration professor at Georgia State University, said North Carolina and Florida had strong reputations for handling killer storms. And he expects that FEMA, in an effort to put the criticism behind it, will respond aggressively to the first post-Katrina disaster.

Still, experts said that with so many national assets tied up in the region blasted by Katrina, the country's ability to respond is weakened.

"In some of these states it will be hard to loan people," Waugh said. "There are some finite capacities."

Volunteer organizations worry that the donations they've taken in to respond to Katrina may have tapped out what people can give. The ability to transform those contributions to on-the-ground assistance could be nearing a practical limit as well. Groups such as the Red Cross and the Southern Baptist Association report that their resources are being pushed nearly to their maximum.

The Mennonite Disaster Service is still rebuilding homes lost to last year's Florida hurricanes and California wildfires, tying up dozens of specialized trucks.

"If something else hits," said John Walker, a coordinator for the service, "things might be really stretched across all of the volunteer organizations."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): KATRINA-RESPONDERS

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