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Hurricane Katrina Spawns Largest Relief Response in U.S. History

President Bush declared federal emergencies in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi on Sunday, and a federal disaster was declared for southern Florida counties impacted by Katrina's first landfall on Friday. The storm is now blamed for nearly 70 deaths, but rescuers fear that list will grow as they reach areas that are impassable at this point.

"This hurricane has caused devastation over a wide area across four states," said Michael D. Brown, Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Emergency Preparedness and Response and head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "FEMA, along with our federal partners and state counterparts, is working 24 hours a day to support emergency protective response and recovery efforts in the impacted states."

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said the city "is in a state of devastation," telling local news channel WWL TV, "We probably have 80 percent of our city underwater, with some sections of our city, the water is as deep as 20 feet.." Nagin warned of a "significant loss of life among those New Orleans residents who did not evacuate or move to shelter in the Superdome. Reports are beginning to come in of bodies floating in the flood waters, and residents braced themselves as water levels in the French Quarter began to rise again today as a levee protecting the city from the waters of Lake Ponchartrain broke, allowing more water to flood the city. According to reports, water levels in the French Quarter are higher today than they were at the height of Katrina's fury yesterday morning and afternoon.

Katrina has been blamed for 55 deaths in Mississippi alone, with Gov. Haley Barbour glumly warning of more. Heavy flooding in Mississippi occurred as far inland as six miles. As of August 29, approximately 52,000 people were in 240 shelters in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida and Texas, with the majority in the New Orleans Superdome, which lost part of its roof. Strategic housing planning is underway to address expected continued sheltering and eventual housing needs.

FEMA reported the following activities as part of the ongoing federal response:

  • FEMA's emergency teams and resources were deployed and configured for coordinated response to Hurricane Katrina. This included pre-staging critical commodities such as ice, water, meals and tarps in various strategic locations to be made available to residents of affected areas.
  • FEMA's Hurricane Liaison Team is onsite and working closely with the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Fla.
  • FEMA's National Response Coordination Center and Regional Response Coordination Centers in Atlanta, Ga., and Denton, Texas, are operating around the clock, coordinating the prepositioning of assets and responding to state requests for assistance.
  • FEMA has deployed a National Emergency Response Team to Louisiana with a coordination cell positioned at the State Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge to facilitate state requests for assistance. In addition, four Advance Emergency Response Teams have been deployed to locations in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. The teams include federal liaisons who work directly within county emergency operations centers to respond to critical needs as they are identified by local officials and prioritized by the state.
  • Rapid Needs Assessment teams were prestaged in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
  • Nine Urban Search and Rescue task forces and incident support teams have been deployed. The task forces are from Florida, Virginia, Maryland, Texas, Tennessee, Indiana, Ohio and Missouri.
  • Thirty-one teams from the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) have been deployed to staging areas in Anniston, Ala., Memphis, Tenn., Houston, Dallas and New Orleans, including 23 Disaster Medical Assistance Teams. The teams bring truckloads of medical equipment and supplies with them and are trained to handle trauma, pediatrics, surgery and mental health problems. Two Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams are also included as part of NDMS assets deployed, which are able to support and rescue pets, and provide any needed veterinary medical care for rescue dogs.
  • Voluntary agencies, important partners in disasters, are prepared to augment local government services with shelters, mobile feeding units, water and clean-up supplies.
  • FEMA has 500 trucks of ice, 500 trucks of water and 350 trucks of meals ready to eat (MREs) available for distribution over the next 10 days.

Meanwhile, the American Red Cross launched the largest mobilization of resources in its history for a single natural disaster.

"Hurricane Katrina is wreaking havoc for southeast Florida and the Gulf coast states," said Joe Becker, senior vice president of Preparedness and Response for the American Red Cross. "The Red Cross will meet the challenge by doing what we do best – coming together to respond with tireless compassion to take care of our neighbors."

The Red Cross is mobilizing on all fronts to bring relief to storm victims. More than 200 Red Cross shelters are housing thousands of residents who fled Katrina. All available resources from across the country, including thousands of staff and volunteers, are being moved into position. More than 200 emergency response vehicles (ERVs) and countless other Red Cross resources are en route or on the scene to provide hot meals, snacks, bottled water and other much-needed relief supplies. In coordination with the Southern Baptists, preparations have been made to provide more than 500,000 hot meals to storm-weary residents each day.

"We are prepared at every level for what will likely be a catastrophic disaster," said Lois Grady-Wesbecher, manager of the Disaster Operations Center at American Red Cross national headquarters.

Hurricane Katrina strengthened into one of the fiercest storms ever seen in the United States. Though Katrina was a Level 4 hurricane when she hit landfall in southern Louisiana, she has done as much – if not more damage than Level 5 hurricane Camille did back in 1967, say residents who survived both storms.

Katrina is a much larger storm than Hurricane Camille or Hurricane Andrew in 1992. At times, the storm was 460 miles wide, the distance from New Orleans to Atlanta.

Destruction from this storm is not limited to coastal areas. After making landfall, Hurricane Katrina progressed inland on Monday, leaving behind a trail of flooding rains and damaging winds and spawning a number of tornados in Georgia. Eventually, heavy rains and winds are expected throughout most of the Midwest and eastern areas of the country, with flood warnings as far north as Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Anyone wishing to contribute to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund can do so by sending donations to their local American Red Cross chapter, or by visiting

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