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Pentagon Sending 500 Soldiers to Louisiana
Health Emergency Declared for Texas, La.

Associated Press |September 24, 2005

The Pentagon on Saturday was sending about 500 active-duty soldiers to Louisiana and five mortuary teams to Texas to deal with Hurricane Rita.

Troops from the 82nd Airborne were heading to Lafayette, La., about 135 miles west of New Orleans, to help with search-and-rescue efforts, said unit commander Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell. He said about 3,200 of his soldiers would be prepared to go to Lafayette by Sunday, if needed.

As a precaution, the U.S. Northern Command redirected mortuary teams from New Orleans to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, said spokeswoman Air Force Lt. Jody Vazquez. Five other teams were put on alert to support task forces responding to Rita and Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast nearly four weeks ago.

"Of course, we hope we don't have to use them," Vazquez said from the command's headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. "They are there to assist as necessary."

President Bush tracked Rita from an Air Force base in the Rocky Mountain foothills, getting reports on flooding, search and rescue efforts and damage caused by the storm more than 1,000 miles away.

In a room lined by eight televisions, video screens and computers, Bush was briefed by federal officials on the military response to the storm that they said hit the Texas-Louisiana border with 91 miles per hour winds.

Bush traveled to the Northern Command to see firsthand how the military was working with state and local officials battling the hurricane.

Flooding in drought-stricken East Texas was a chief concern for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (news, bio, voting record), R-Texas, as Rita slowed to a Category 2 hurricane in its northward march.

"I think the damage will be great, but I think the loss of life will be spared," Hutchison told CBS's "The Early Show."

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency urged Gulf residents to stay in their homes and wait out the hurricane.

"This is still a very dangerous storm," the agency's acting director, R. David Paulison, said on ABC's "Good Morning America."

"I know we're seeing reports on TV that maybe it wasn't as bad as people expected it to be. But there's still a lot of water, a lot of rain; still a lot of wind," he said.

Soldiers from the Fort Bragg, N.C.-based 82nd Airborne planned to complete their relief work in re-flooded areas of northern New Orleans by late Saturday and then shift to areas of southwestern Louisiana damaged by Rita, Caldwell said.

Caldwell said he was not aware of other active-duty ground forces under orders to go to areas hit by Rita. He said Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, commander of all active-duty troops involved in the Katrina relief work, had moved his headquarters to Lafayette to focus on supporting civilian agencies responding to damage from Rita.

The Bush administration's mass mobilization for the storm sharply contrasted with its widely criticized preparations for Katrina.

"I think at this point the federal government has done pretty much all that's possible to do," Paulison said. "Right now, we just have to wait out the storm, see exactly where it makes landfall, and then move ahead with our supplies that we have on the ground and our resources."

Texas lawmakers reported fuel shortages and a lack of shelter for evacuated special-needs patients.

Anticipating Rita's landfall, FEMA stockpiled four days' worth of food, water and ice in Texas and Louisiana, and the Pentagon added 13,273 active-duty troops to the 36,108 National Guard personnel stationed throughout the region, Paulison said.

Forty Coast Guard aircraft, nine cutters and 26 Defense Department helicopters were ready to move in as soon as Rita passed though the area, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt declared a public health emergency Friday in the two states. That eased some of the requirements for hurricane victims who seek Medicaid or other assistance after the storm.

But officials in Rita's path pointed to some gaps that remained in the federal readiness system.

"We have thousands of people with no fuel or food, no shelters, no cots, no security," said Houston-area Rep. Kevin Brady (news, bio, voting record), R-Texas.


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