FEMA Presence in Texas Prepares for Rita Response

AUSTIN (AP) -- Hundreds of federal officials are on the ground in Texas, where truckloads of water, food, ice and medical supplies are set to head for the coast once Hurricane Rita makes landfall.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has set up a field office in Austin, where it is mobilizing to prepare for the Category 4 storm and to respond to the anticipated Saturday landfall on the Gulf Coast.

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.

With winds reaching 150 mph, Rita could be catastrophic for the coastal areas it hits.

In Austin, the state's emergency management office is leading the effort, but the FEMA field office has mobilized 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.

All are housed in cubicles in the north Austin makeshift FEMA office.

A public assistance division is charged with handling cleanup efforts, while an individual assistance division is preparing to help storm victims recover, with aid such as home repair and replacing personal items.

The office is organizing a ''staging area'' in San Antonio, where supplies are being readied to ship to the hardest hit areas.

Forty-five truckloads of water, 45 truckloads of ice, and 25 truckloads of MREs, or meals ready to eat, are on standby. More than 400 medical team personnel and 14 Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces, for a total of 800 personnel now 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.

Thursday afternoon, federal officials were on standby at the Austin field office, monitoring the storm and waiting, said Laird Basehoar, spokeswoman for the Texas FEMA office.

FEMA set the office up in Austin in order to be close to state officials, who are steering the response effort, she said.

''This is a state run operation that we're supporting ... our intent is to support the state of Texas to provide people and assets and boats and planes ... to respond to this hurricane as best we can,'' said Adm. Larry Hareth of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Hareth has been tasked with overseeing the federal response to Hurricane Rita.

''We're prepared to conduct an extraordinary series of life saving and life sustaining ... activities,'' he said in an interview with CNN.

In a joint statement, Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, both Republicans, urged that every effort be made to prepare for the storm's landfall.

''We appreciate the extensive efforts currently under way by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate with state of Texas disaster response personnel to prepare for Hurricane Rita,'' Hutchison and Cornyn said. ''We will continue working to ensure that the federal government is an effective partner providing the necessary resources and personnel now, and following the storm's landfall.''

President Bush on Wednesday declared an emergency for Texas, freeing up federal emergency funds three days before the storm was expected to hit land. 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.