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U.S. Launches Massive Response to Aid Hurricane Katrina Victims

Foreign governments offer to help in search, reconstruction efforts

Posted: September 1, 2005
Updated: September 4, 2005
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President George W. Bush speaks to reporters after meeting with former presidents Bush and Clinton, who will lead a major fundraising effort to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. In the wake of massive destruction, death and homelessness across four states, the U.S. government has launched one of the largest domestic response mobilizations in U.S. history. (White House photo by Paul Morse)

President George W. Bush speaks to reporters after meeting with former presidents Bush and Clinton, who will lead a major fundraising effort to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. In the wake of massive destruction, death and homelessness across four states, the U.S. government has launched one of the largest domestic response mobilizations in U.S. history.

Washington -- In the wake of massive destruction, death and homelessness across four states caused by Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. government has launched one of the largest domestic response mobilizations in U.S. history.

Nearly every federal agency has people, equipment and supplies on the ground in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama, working with state and local officials and offering food, water, shelter, medical care and supplies, as well as help with power lines and infrastructure.

President Bush has declared major disasters for affected areas in the four states, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said August 31.

“Along with these declarations,” he added, “the full range of federal resources and capabilities is being directed, as we speak, to assist and protect those citizens who have borne the brunt of this catastrophe.”

During his August 31 flight back to Washington from his ranch in Texas, President Bush asked the pilot to fly over the affected Gulf Coast region.

“The vast majority of New Orleans, Louisiana is under water,” he said during a press briefing later that day in Washington. “Tens of thousands of homes and businesses are beyond repair. A lot of the Mississippi Gulf Coast has been completely destroyed. Mobile [Alabama] is flooded,” he added.

“We are dealing,” Bush said, “with one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history.”

More than a dozen foreign governments have offered to help in the Gulf Coast area search-and-reconstruction efforts, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said during an August 31 press briefing.

“These are general offers of assistance at this point,” McCormack added. “We appreciate each and every one of them and we are going to work in the coming days and weeks with foreign governments to see how we can best channel these offers of assistance.”

Countries that have offered assistance include Canada, France, Honduras, Japan, Russia and the United Kingdom, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said during a September 1 press briefing. Many more countries have offered assistance, and many have offered condolences, he said.

The U.S. State Department is assisting foreign missions in locating their citizens who might have been in the affected areas. (See related article.)

President Bush directed Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff to chair a Cabinet-level task force to coordinate assistance from Washington, and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Mike Brown is in charge of federal response and recovery efforts in the field.

And the president has asked two former presidents, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, to lead a nationwide fundraising effort to help the hurricane's victims. He said the two leaders "will ask Americans to open their hearts and their wallets to help those in need."

Recovery efforts are focused on three priorities, Bush said – saving lives; sustaining lives with food, water, shelter and medical care; and executing a comprehensive recovery effort.

“This recovery will take a long time,” he said, “This recovery will take years.”

SAVING LIVES

Federal agencies are helping local officials in New Orleans evacuate everyone still in the flooded city. For 25,000 residents who had taken shelter in the city’s Superdome sports arena, the city of Houston, 350 miles away, offered shelter in its Astrodome, where they may stay until December.

The Superdome’s roof, damaged by Katrina, is leaking. There is no air conditioning and not much electricity, and toilets are backing up.

FEMA provided 500 buses to transport people to the Astrodome, a six-hour drive away. Evacuees began arriving at the 40-year-old former sports complex in the early morning hours of September 1.

The agency has deployed 39 disaster medical assistance teams from all across the United States to staging areas in Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana to provide emergency medical assistance.

The U.S. Coast Guard is conducting search-and-rescue missions, working alongside local officials with local assets. It has also activated three national strike teams (units skilled in specialized salvage and pollution control) to help remove hazardous material.

The Coast Guard has rescued nearly 2,000 people since the hurricane struck, Bush said, and its ships and boats continue to support the national relief effort.

The Defense Department is sending the USS Bataan, a multipurpose amphibious assault ship, to conduct search-and-rescue missions. The ship has hospital facilities to care for up to 600 patients, including six fully equipped medical operating rooms.

Defense is also sending eight swift-water rescue teams, the three-ship Iwo Jima Amphibious Readiness Group to help with disaster-response equipment, and the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship, to help provide medical care.

The National Guard has nearly 11,000 guardsmen on state active duty to help governors and local officials with security and disaster-response efforts.

FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers are working around the clock with Louisiana officials to repair breaches in New Orleans' levees and ease the city’s flooding.

SUSTAINING LIVES

FEMA is moving supplies and equipment into the hardest-hit areas, Bush said. Supplies include truckloads of water, ice, meals, medical supplies, generators, tents and tarpaulins. More than 1,700 trailer trucks have been mobilized to move the supplies into position.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has provided more than 400 trucks to move 1,000 truckloads containing 5.4 million ready-to-eat meals, 13.4 million liters of water, 10,400 tarpaulins, 1.5 million kilograms of ice, 144 generators, 20 containers of disaster supplies, 135,000 blankets and 11,000 cots.

More than 78,000 people are in shelters, Bush said. The departments of Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services (HHS) are working with local communities to help those who have lost their homes.

HHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are working with local officials to identify operating hospital facilities so that the federal government can help provide necessary medical care. They are also distributing medical supplies and executing a public health plan to control disease and other health-related issues.

“This afternoon I've declared a public health emergency for the entire Gulf region,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt August 31. “That will have the effect of dramatically simplifying and accelerating the procedures necessary to expedite emergency actions.”

CDC and the Food and Drug Administration are assembling public health teams to focus on chemical and toxicology matters and sanitation and food safety.

“We are gravely concerned about the potential for cholera, typhoid and dehydrating diseases that could come as a result of the stagnant water and the conditions,” Leavitt said. “We're concerned about mosquito abatement. And our teams will be focused to assist local officials on those points.”

THE RECOVERY EFFORT

Bush said government agencies are focusing on restoring power and communication lines in the three states truly devastated by the storm -- Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

The Energy Department has deployed personnel and is working with local power companies and local and state authorities to help get electricity working. It is also helping to ensure the repair and continuity of oil and gas pipelines that may have been affected by power outages.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman announced August 31 that the Strategic Petroleum Reserve will be used to help fulfill demand for oil. Refineries that are short on supplies of crude oil will have access to supplies from the reserve to help avert a disruption in the supply of gasoline to drivers and businesses across the country.

“We'll be repairing major roads and bridges and other essential means of transportation as quickly as possible,” he said. “Repairing the infrastructure, of course, is going to be a key priority.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has issued temporary waivers to make alternative supplies of gasoline and diesel fuel available in areas of the country with shortages of the specific fuel blends required under the Clean Air Act.

“This will help take some pressure off of gas prices,” Bush said. “But our citizens must understand this storm has disrupted the capacity to make and distribute gasoline.”

The response for displaced citizens will include housing, education, health care and other essential needs.

“I've directed the folks in my Cabinet to work with local officials to develop a comprehensive strategy to rebuild the communities affected,” the president said.

DOT is working to restore at least minimal transportation infrastructure in the region, said Secretary Norman Mineta, “and that includes highways, airports, seaports and oil pipelines.”

In addition, the department has deployed teams from its Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Highway Administration, and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to the region.

The teams are working closely with Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama state officials to clear roads and inspect bridges, establish communications, increase operations at major airports, and move generators to pipeline pumping stations to restore the flow of petroleum products to the southeast United States.

“The folks on the Gulf Coast are going to need the help of this country for a long time,” President Bush said. “This is going to be a difficult road. The challenges that we face on the ground are unprecedented. But there's no doubt in my mind we're going to succeed.”

Cheryl Pellerin
Washington File Staff Writer

 
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