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Rita Provides Federal Officials with Proving Ground


Stung by criticism that they reacted too slowly to Hurricane Katrina, federal officials say they're working hard to avoid making the same mistakes twice. Last night, the Bush administration declared Hurricane Rita an incident of national significance, a designation that helps rally more federal resources. That designation wasn't given to Hurricane Katrina until two days after it hit New Orleans. NPR's Pam Fessler has more.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

For three days now top administration officials, including President Bush, have made three public appeals to Gulf Coast residents to evacuate. The president today also said the federal government is providing resources for a quick response to the storm, and that he's in close contact with Texas officials.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I talked to Governor Perry again. I talked to him last night. I talked to him this morning. This is a big storm.

FESSLER: He said officials at all levels of government are preparing for the worst. For the federal government, that means supplying buses and aircraft to help with evacuations. Dozens of trucks filled with food, ice and water have already been sent to Texas, as have hundreds of medical workers and search-and-rescue teams. The Pentagon is constructing field hospitals to support 2,500 beds. It also has teams in place to set up emergency communications systems. And tomorrow, President Bush himself plans to fly to Texas to review the preparations.

It's a far cry from Hurricane Katrina, when it seemed to take days for the White House to grasp the full extent of the disaster. David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says his agency is in almost constant contact with state and local officials.

Mr. DAVID PAULISON (Acting Director, FEMA): We are making an extraordinary effort to make sure that we have a coordination system in place where we are talking with those people, like I said, almost on an hourly basis and making sure they have the things to do their job. We are not making any assumptions in this storm. We are asking questions; they're asking questions.

FESSLER: That's to help avoid a repeat of misunderstandings during Hurricane Katrina, for example, when Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco asked the president for everything he had, but the federal government wanted a specific request. Now officials on the ground say they're getting plenty of help. Tom Willi, county administrator in the Florida Keys, says he was told even before the storm passed over that there were a thousand National Guardsmen nearby to set up distribution points for ice, water, food and medical supplies.

Mr. TOM WILLI (County Administrator, Florida Keys): Anything that we needed, I had a thousand people at my dispose. I also had a mixture of 17 aircraft, fixed-wing and helicopters. I had 47-foot Coast Guard patrol boats. I had 25-foot Coast Guard patrol boats.

FESSLER: He ended up not needing them, and many of those assets are on their way to Texas and Louisiana. In Galveston, Texas, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said last night that evacuation buses were in short supply. But today, she said all her requests for help are being met.

Mayor LYDA ANN THOMAS (Galveston, Texas): We have been cooperating with state and federal officials and they have certainly been cooperating with us. They've responded to all of our phone calls, wherever they may be.

FESSLER: Texas officials are now asking the federal government to assist with the distribution of gasoline to motorists stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic as they try to evacuate. FEMA's Paulison says his agency is working on that request. Houston Mayor Bill White today also advised those planning to leave his city by plane to prepare for extended delays.

Mayor BILL WHITE (Houston): It could be four hours. It could be five hours. Make your plans accordingly because of a bottleneck caused by the failure to show up at work of essential personnel of the federal TSA.

FESSLER: A spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration says the agency's deployed screeners from other Texas airports to help fill in the gap. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.