Agencies get ready for massive Gulf Coast storm

Hurricane Gustav could make landfall days after the third anniversary of Katrina, which caught the government off-guard.

Federal agencies are scrambling to prepare for a major hurricane predicted to hit the Gulf Coast early next week, following a declaration of a state of emergency and a request for federal assistance on Wednesday by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Forecasters predicted Hurricane Gustav, currently in the vicinity of Jamaica, could increase in strength to a Category 3 storm and hit the Gulf Coast on Monday or Tuesday, just as the Republican National Convention is scheduled to get under way in St. Paul, Minn. These forecasts came one day shy of the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which slammed into a poorly prepared New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, criticized for its slow and inept response to Katrina has rapidly geared up its preparations for Gustav. The agency said it has pre-positioned supplies available for distribution in Gulf Coast states, including:

• 2.4 million liters of water (137 truckloads)

• 4 million meals (203 truckloads)

• 478 emergency generators

• 141 truckloads of tarps

• 267 truckloads of blankets and cots

The U.S. Northern Command, which provides support to civil authorites in a disaster, has dispatched an Army Defense Coordinating Officer from U.S. Army North to Louisiana. Patti Bielling, a spokeswoman for U.S. Army North, said the coordinating officers, who are co-located in FEMA regions around the country, are supported by 10-person teams that can deploy with their own satellite communications gear in an SUV. The gear provides access to Defense Department classified and unclassified networks. She said these vehicles also includeradios to communicate with state and local first responders.

Fred Ruonavar, chief of the crisis action team at the Defense Information Systems Agency, has a group standing by to support communications requirements from Northern Command. These could include repairs to Defense circuits knocked out by the storm and deployment of satellite phones.

Emanuel Pacheco, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau, said there are more than 65,000 Guard personnel in the Gulf Coast region ready to respond to Gustav. Pacheco said the Guard has improved its response to hurricanes since Katrina by holding biweekly video teleconferences with units in the Gulf Coast. It has been conducting those conferences since the start of the hurricane season in June, but on Wednesday it started holding them daily and included units in all 50 states to better coordinate its response to Gustav. Pacheco said this will help identify assets, such as vehicles or helicopters, which could be moved to the Gulf Coast.

In addition, Kevin Yeskey, director of the Health and Human Services Department's Office of Preparedness and Emergency Operations, said HHS deployed 600 personnel to the Gulf Coast on Thursday and plans to dispatch 400 more Friday. They will staff nine disaster medical assistance teams, 11 medical strike teams, three incident response coordination teams, and two U.S. Public Health Service rapid deployment forces.

HHS also has nine deployable hospitals, each with a 250 bed capacity on alert, Yeskey said.

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