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State, local officials say they've learned from Katrina

WASHINGTON—With Hurricane Rita gathering strength and bearing down on the Gulf Coast, federal, state and local disaster officials say they're beginning to evacuate the poor, the elderly and the ill and that they're better prepared than they were when Katrina hit three weeks ago.

The military, which is doing the bulk of the Hurricane Katrina cleanup, said troops are already in the Gulf prepared to help when needed. And the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said he'll rely on the military more, a contrast from the agency's initial experiences in Katrina.

The White House, which was roundly criticized during the flooding of New Orleans and the devastation of the Gulf Coast, put a key presidential aide in charge of coordinating the Bush administration's response to Rita. The same aide, homeland security adviser Fran Townsend, is also in charge of investigating the lapses during Katrina.

"This is a hurricane that we continue to monitor," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

Late Tuesday, acting FEMA chief R. David Paulison said his agency will depend "much more heavily on the Department of Defense and also the National Guard" and will dramatically improve communication in an effort to protect life and property. His agency bore the brunt of the criticism for its slow response to Katrina. Paulison's predecessor, Michael Brown, resigned last week as a result.

The Department of Homeland Security, FEMA's parent agency, is essentially following the same blueprint used for Katrina, department spokeswoman Valerie Smith said. Under the National Response Plan, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was in charge of preparation and the initial federal response to Katrina.

"We are pre-positioning personnel and equipment consistent with the emergency preparedness protocols," Smith said, adding that no major changes were planned.

Maj. Paul Swiergosz, a Pentagon spokesman, said military officials were preparing for Hurricane Rita's landfall in the same manner that they prepared for Hurricane Katrina, but having everyone already nearby will make things a lot easier.

Swiergosz noted that because active-duty military ships, 170 helicopters, 45 planes and personnel were already in the Gulf of Mexico because of relief efforts for Katrina, "there are going to be some things that are going to be available quicker." That includes 55,000 federal and National Guard troops.

State and local agencies—and the Army Corps of Engineers—say they're making the following changes:

_ Increasing the size of evacuations of the elderly, poor and infirm in Louisiana and in Galveston, Texas, the likely landfall of Rita.

_ Providing more buses in Louisiana for evacuation should Rita's path move northward.

_ Improving communications capacity. Louisiana officials are stocking up on satellite phones.

_ Deploying a $4.5 million military communications system.

_ Bolstering the already-damaged levees outside of New Orleans.

"Katrina and the situation in New Orleans was a lesson for all of us," Galveston County Emergency Management spokesman John Simsen said Tuesday.

Galveston always thought it had a good hurricane plan, but Katrina showed county officials they had to do more to evacuate the poor, sick and elderly, Simsen said. So on Monday, the county started calling every phone in the region to see who needs help in getting out of harm's way.

Louisiana is showing that it learned its lessons by getting extra buses and by better positioning the National Guard, said former FEMA Director James Lee Witt, who's been hired as a disaster consultant by Louisiana. As many as 500 buses will be added this time, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Bill Doran, chief of operations for the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said some parishes already have begun preparing to move the sick and the elderly—earlier than they did for Katrina. Local disaster officers have also been given satellite phones to help prevent communications breakdowns such as those that plagued the response after Katrina, he said

Just as Katrina did late last month, Rita gained strength Tuesday afternoon as it skirted south along the Florida Keys and reached the "abnormally warm" Gulf of Mexico waters, National Hurricane Center meteorologist Chris Sisko said. Rita's winds are expected to strengthen to a major Category 4 storm.

Hurricane Rita will probably hit between Corpus Christi and Galveston-Houston, sometime Friday night or early Saturday morning, Sisko said.

Unless Rita's path changes, New Orleans is likely to miss much of its heavy rains, Sisko said. The city's levee system is so compromised that it offers little protection against a hurricane or storm, the Army Corps of Engineers said.

If Rita continues to threaten New Orleans, the Army Corps will decide Wednesday whether to close off two canals with steel retaining walls—something not done during Katrina. The corps also has brought in pumps and 800 sandbags with another 2,500 expected. New access roads to the levees were constructed since Katrina hit.

The Army's 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, has received a "warning order" to be prepared to provide helicopters to any Hurricane Rita relief work, a senior military official said.

More than 300,000 National Guard soldiers and aviators are ready to respond to Rita.

Like it did before Katrina, FEMA has pre-positioned some supplies in Texas, including 45 truckloads of water, 45 truckloads of ice, eight truckloads of meals, nine search-and-rescue teams and nine disaster medical teams.

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(Knight Ridder correspondents Eric Frazier, Pete Carey, Nicholas Spangler, Ron Hutcheson, Chris Adams, Joseph P. Galloway, Jonathan S. Landay and Alison Young contributed to this report.)

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

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