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New Orleans Is Taking No Chances With Rita

Times Staff Writers

A smattering of residents scarred by Hurricane Katrina and scared by Hurricane Rita wandered over to the convention center Tuesday, hoping to catch a ride out of town.

A few weeks ago, residents who made that choice became stranded at the convention center -- many of them without food or water. Emergency officials later said they had no idea anyone was there.

Buses arrived to evacuate them five days later.

On Tuesday, residents were met by 4,000 active-duty troops from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, who called for two buses.

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“They were there in minutes,” New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said.

Although Rita is expected to strike in Texas and may have little effect on New Orleans, it appeared Tuesday that the local, state and federal authorities here were well-prepared. Leaders of the Katrina reconstruction effort, however, would not discuss what happened in the days leading up to and following that storm.

“We’re moving on,” Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, the top military official on the ground in New Orleans, said Tuesday when asked about the difference in preparation. “Let’s not get stuck on the last storm.... Let’s talk about the future.”

Nagin said: “We’ve learned a lot of lessons. We’re much better prepared this time.... We have a much different way of approaching this with the resources available.”

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By Tuesday night, a military hospital was expected to be constructed inside the convention center. And there were 500 buses poised on the outskirts of the city to take residents to safety if Rita threatens New Orleans.

The military has also arranged for commercial airplanes to fly into New Orleans if necessary to ferry residents to safety.

Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, head of the federal government’s relief effort, said the military had enough food and water stockpiled to sustain 500,000 people, even though many pockets of southern Louisiana were virtually deserted.

The National Guard is going door-to-door in some of New Orleans’ poorest neighborhoods to warn people who never left or who trickled back into the city after Katrina that another storm could be on the way.

Those residents are living in neighborhoods virtually disconnected from the outside world. There are no newspapers and no electricity to provide televised updates on Rita.

In the days leading up to Katrina, there was no National Guard assistance.

The New Orleans Police Department was on its own, and hundreds of officers had to be pulled away from other duties and sent into the neighborhoods with loudspeakers to encourage residents to leave.

“This is a combined local, state and federal effort,” Allen said.

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Official channels of communication collapsed in New Orleans after Katrina; police officers were seen running handwritten notes to one another when their radios failed.

But if Rita strikes, Honore said, a $4.5-million communications system is in place to provide coverage if land-based phone lines, radios and cellphones fail again. The communications system uses Defense Department satellites, he said.

Lt. Col. Bill Doran, chief of operations for the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said many of the state’s parishes were working Tuesday to ensure that people in nursing homes would be evacuated if Rita threatened their communities. Dozens of elderly nursing home residents who were not evacuated died in flooding after Katrina.

The widespread availability of buses represents a shift in response as well.

Some New Orleans residents reported that they attempted to evacuate the city before Katrina hit only to find that there were no buses at the staging areas where they had been directed. So they went home.

This time, Honore said, “we’re going to move them out as they come in. People come, they get on the bus, they get on the truck and they move on. Is that clear? Is that clear to the public? ... It didn’t work the first time. This ain’t the first time.”

Honore said there were no plans to open any large evacuation shelters in New Orleans in advance of Rita.

Officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was singled out for particularly harsh criticism after its slow response to Katrina, said Tuesday that they were determined not to be caught flat-footed by Rita.

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The federal government was visibly engaged at a much higher level and was focusing the bulk of its efforts in Texas.

“There are a couple of things that are different” this time, acting FEMA Director R. David Paulison said.

“One, we are depending much more heavily on the Department of Defense and also the National Guard. There is a Coast Guard [coordinator] already on the ground in Texas, pre-positioned, so we have that communication not only with the state but also back with the [Homeland Security] secretary and with the president. We are taking communications very seriously, and I think that is going to be the big difference.”

FEMA has positioned truckloads of water, ice and ready-to-eat meals in Texas and Florida, where the storm pounded the Lower Keys on Tuesday with heavy rain and winds.

Medical teams and search-and-rescue units also were ready to go wherever necessary.

The main difference at the federal level, Paulison said, was an emphasis on closer communication with state and local officials.

“We are going to be hooked at the hip with emergency managers to make sure that we’re all prepared, we all know what’s going to happen and we all know what they’re prepared for and what they’re not prepared for,” he said.

Homestead Air Force Base and Patrick Air Force Base, both in Florida, have been designated as FEMA mobilization centers from which supplies and equipment will be ferried to the areas affected by Rita.

The Pentagon also has put eight helicopters from Patrick on alert to conduct search-and-rescue missions.

Army Lt. Col. Mike Pierson, who is involved in overseeing the active-duty component of the Katrina recovery, said the military was scrambling to ensure that it can sweep into any areas affected by Rita.

Military officials were scouting locations in the New Orleans area and elsewhere Tuesday where they might be able to ride out the storm.

But some troops will probably have to be pulled out of areas already affected by Katrina, he said.

“They want to keep focused on being poised to respond if Rita were to take a turn north,” Pierson said.

In the end, Pierson said, the vast government response will be dictated largely by the weather -- as always.

“You wish it would be sunny and 75 degrees every day,” Pierson said. “But it doesn’t always work out that way.”

*

Gold reported from New Orleans and Alonso-Zaldivar from Washington. Times staff writers Mark Mazzetti in Washington and Susannah Rosenblatt in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.


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