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Hurricanes Katrina and Rita Were Like Night and Day

A helicopter tries to repair a breached New Orleans levee that was damaged by Katrina and overcome by the effects of Rita.
A helicopter tries to repair a breached New Orleans levee that was damaged by Katrina and overcome by the effects of Rita. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

In last week's run-up to the storm, U.S. officials took advantage of a second chance to test the nation's emergency response system after its near-collapse in New Orleans. Preparations dwarfed those before Katrina.

Bush appeared yesterday morning with Chertoff at the military's U.S. Northern Command headquarters in Colorado, which mobilized thousands of troops and fleets of aircraft and ships.

Two days before landfall, Bush declared Rita an "incident of national significance" -- which triggers the federal government's highest level of response -- and Chertoff named Coast Guard Rear Adm. Larry Hereth as the federal officer in charge. Those steps were taken two days after Katrina hit.

Texas called 10,000 National Guard members and asked for 10,000 active-duty U.S. military troops, while Louisiana has 22,000 guard members in place and asked for 15,000 troops. By comparison, Louisiana readied 5,000 National Guard members before Katrina.

The Pentagon moved 500 active-duty troops into the region yesterday. Blanco asked for 40,000 troops two days after Katrina hit; the White House sent the first 7,000 three days later.

Rear Adm. Joseph F. Kilkenny, commander of Carrier Strike Group Ten, 1,100 sailors and 650 sometimes queasy Marines were aboard the USS Iwo Jima in heavy seas yesterday in the Gulf of Mexico as it steamed toward Sabine Pass, Tex., on the Texas-Louisiana border to help rescue victims of Rita.

Crews started at daybreak yesterday flying 15 helicopters on search missions over Lake Charles and Lafayette, La. Kilkenny said the military is using a grid system designed for fighting wars to carry out its domestic disaster response for the first time. Grids 15 by 15 nautical miles should make searches much more systematic than the chaotic searches after Katrina, Kilkenny said, because all the search parties -- state and local, U.S. Coast Guard, National Guard and active-duty military -- will work from the same grid.

In "Afghanistan and Iraq we used the grid system. In that instance they were called 'kill boxes.' In this instance they're called 'rescue boxes,' " Kilkenny said.

By air and sea, Kilkenny said the Coast Guard was handling rescue from the Texas-Louisiana border westward, while the U.S. Navy was operating east of the border.

In terms of ground operations, Kilkenny said, "This will be a pincer movement. We'll have land forces and FEMA state and local coming from the north down into these areas. And we will survey and see if we need to come in from the sea to render assistance" by sending Marines ashore.

Once it stops 25 nautical miles south of Sabine Pass early today, the amphibious assault ship could also provide medical assistance to people who cannot get help at local hospitals. The ship has 80 doctors and nurses aboard.

There are two other amphibious assault ships, the USS Shreveport and the USS Tortuga, in the Gulf area, as well as the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship, and the supply ship USNS Patuxent. They and the USS Grapple, a rescue and salvage vessel, could join the Iwo Jima as needed. Within about two days, seven or eight Navy mine countermeasure ships are to arrive to help assess damage to offshore oil platforms.

As Rita approached, federal emergency managers positioned twice as many search-and-rescue teams in Texas as they did in Louisiana last month. Officials fueled more that 900 buses for evacuation and rescue, and placed on standby 12 heavy-lift military helicopters, six transport aircraft and dozens of civilian aircraft -- equipment in short supply immediately after Katrina.

FEMA last week stockpiled 45 trailers of water, 45 trailers of ice and 25 trailers of ice in Texas before Rita's arrival, twice as many as last month at Louisiana's Camp Beauregard.

"The big difference is that we have been gearing up our entire system for a month now," Robert B. Stephan, assistant secretary of homeland security for infrastructure protection, said in Washington. "There's no warm-up period -- the car is started and ready to go."

Hendrix reported from Austin. Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson, aboard the USS Iwo Jima, contributed to this report.

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