Agencies organize massive hurricane response mobilization

With thousands stranded and billions of dollars estimated in damages, multiple federal organizations swing into action.

Federal agencies amplified their efforts Wednesday to help victims and assess damage from Hurricane Katrina in what officials say is one of the largest natural disaster relief and recovery operations in U.S. history.

The government announced a massive, coordinated mobilization to find and rescue victims, handle a mass exodus of people from the Gulf of Mexico region, and assess damage to local, state and federal infrastructure.

Hurricane Katrina plowed into the Gulf Coast Monday morning, displacing tens of thousands of residents, killing hundreds of people and resulting in federal disaster declarations for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

"The federal government is continuing to lead one of the largest response mobilizations in United States history to aid those who have had their homes and their lives devastated by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said during a press conference with other Cabinet secretaries and agency directors. "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."

President Bush appointed Chertoff to chair a Cabinet-level task force to coordinate the federal response from Washington, and Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown to direct field operations.

Chertoff said the government has declared the hurricane "an incident of national significance" and was initiating -- for the first time -- the National Response Plan, which is intended to ensure better cooperation between agencies. It gives DHS the lead responsibility to coordinate federal response and recovery efforts.

Agencies mobilized their resources Wednesday.

The Coast Guard continued search and rescue operations, assisting in the rescue of more than 2,000 people. Chertoff also authorized the call-up of 550 Coast Guard reservists to help in recovery operations.

FEMA has dispatched more than 50 disaster medical assistance teams from all over the country to the region, as well 25 urban search and rescue teams and 1,700 trailer trucks carrying emergency supplies. FEMA began a massive logistical effort Wednesday to relocate about 23,000 refugees from the Louisiana Superdome to the Houston Astrodome by using about 500 buses.

FEMA also asked Chertoff for permission to use up to 2,000 DHS workers as volunteers for two weeks to help with recovery efforts.

U.S. Northern Command has created an unprecedented domestic unit called Joint Task Force Katrina to coordinate emergency operations by National Guard and active-duty forces. About 20,000 National Guard troops are being deployed throughout the Gulf Coast under the authority of the state governors. About 10,000 will be used to stop looting and enforce laws.

Paul McHale, the Pentagon's undersecretary for homeland defense, said the task force will provide 50 helicopters, eight civilian boat rescue teams, a 500-bed mobile hospital and up to 1.5 million "meals-ready-to-eat" packages. The Navy also is dispatching an amphibious group with four ships, along with the USNS Comfort, a floating hospital that helped in the aftermath of the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia last December.

"We are forward-deploying everything that we think might be required by FEMA," McHale said Wednesday.

He said about 60 percent of the states' National Guard forces are available; the rest are supporting the Iraq war.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said his department is helping with evacuations, has transported more than 3 million gallons of water, 3.4 million pounds of ice and 10,000 tarps to the region, and is now working to restore minimal transportation infrastructure.

"Although we are still in the process of assessment, it is clear that there has been significant damage to the transportation infrastructure in the affected region," Mineta said.

Health and public safety concerns also mounted Wednesday, especially worries about diseases from stagnant water and raw sewage. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt declared a public health emergency for the Gulf region. He said the department plans to erect 40 emergency medical care shelters with about 10,000 beds staffed by 4,000 personnel.

The Energy Department and Environmental Protection Agency also took action. The Energy Department announced that it will release oil from federal petroleum reserves to refiners affected by the hurricane, while the EPA said it will waive standards across the country for gasoline and diesel fuels until Sept. 15.

Chertoff said it was too early to estimate how much the government will spend on relief and recovery operations.

"I anticipate this is going to be a very, very substantial effort. I don't even think we have fully assessed all of the collateral consequences that are going to have to be dealt with," he said.

"In terms of the property damage, we're not going to know the full effect of this until we actually get in and look at what the consequences are on the ground ... So the process of getting our arms around the total cost is probably going to take a while."