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Thursday, September 22, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Feds mobilizing response to Rita

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — As Hurricane Rita powered toward the Texas coast yesterday, the Bush administration was doing its best to appear calm and collected while mobilizing as if its core credibility were on the line.

Indeed, political Washington was so jittery over the possibility that the federal government might repeat the errors of Hurricane Katrina that some Republicans reacted with alarm when President Bush spent part of the day attending to routine business — delivering a boilerplate speech at a GOP luncheon and attending a lengthy meeting on his stalled Social Security plan.

"Why he spent 45 minutes on Social Security today floors me," a GOP lobbyist said.

But White House officials said Bush spent much of yesterday on hurricane business and the time devoted to other activities apparently was designed to project a sense of calm.

Agency officials seemed to have the same intent. But memories of the Katrina fiasco never were far below the surface. And there was little evidence of the tentative, wait-to-be-asked approach that contributed to the faltering response to the storm that devastated New Orleans and the eastern Gulf Coast.

"This is a huge hurricane, and it's headed toward important national assets, so the focus had to be very sharp," said Morrie Goodman, a former Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman. "But what is also at stake is the reputation of FEMA and the reputation of the president of the United States."

Signs that Washington meant to do better this time were visible in many places.

At FEMA, officials were not relying on the doubtful proposition that local telephones would continue working. Instead, they had five military communications teams poised to move wherever Rita struck.

The agency also reassured nervous lawmakers that it had 10,000 operators standing by to handle storm claims. And, rather than wait to be asked for help by local officials, FEMA said it was taking a lead role in coordinating transportation.

"I think they have come to their senses," said Richard Krimm, who worked at the agency for nearly 20 years before retiring in 1998. "If they had done for Hurricane Katrina what they are doing now, you wouldn't have had the debacle in New Orleans."

By late afternoon, Bush had formally declared Texas and Louisiana disaster areas, a step necessary to start the flow of federal aid. And the Department of Homeland Security soon was expected to declare Rita an "incident of national significance," the highest emergency designation — a step not taken until a full day after Katrina hit the eastern Gulf Coast.

"We are determined to learn the lessons of Katrina, and that's why we have been assessing what's been working and what hasn't been working and taking steps to address those issues," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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