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Thursday, September 29, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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FEMA closes relief center amid heat, lines

The Associated Press

HOUSTON — Saying they were caught off-guard by the number of people in need, FEMA officials closed a relief center yesterday after some of the hundreds of hurricane victims in line began fainting in triple-digit heat.

The midday closing of the Houston disaster-relief center came as officials in areas hit hardest by Hurricane Rita criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency's response to the storm. One called for a commission to examine the emergency response.

Across southeastern Texas, FEMA delivered ice, water and packaged meals to residents who rode out last week's hurricane, which blew ashore at Sabine Pass early Saturday.

But the agency was not ready for the roughly 1,500 people who sought help at the Houston center when it reopened yesterday.

The center, offering help from a variety of government and private organizations, initially opened for Hurricane Katrina evacuees. It closed last week when Houston was evacuated before Rita.

The line started forming Tuesday night. As temperatures reached record highs yesterday, some people fainted and had to be carried off by police and other evacuees.

FEMA spokesman Justin Dombrowski said the agency closed the center for the day because of the heat and the unexpectedly large crowds. Those already in line were allowed to enter.

FEMA said it would reopen the center this morning and keep it operating into the evening seven days a week. The agency also was making plans to deal with any similar situation, said Mike Casella, another FEMA spokesman.

Local officials, including Port Arthur Mayor Oscar Ortiz and Jefferson County Judge Carl Griffith, whose county includes Beaumont, said FEMA's response has been inadequate.

Griffith said he has asked Gov. Rick Perry to set up a commission to study the emergency response to Rita. Congress is holding hearings this week on the federal government's response to Katrina.

FEMA spokesman Ross Fredenburg in Austin said communications between Austin and rural east Texas have been troubled, in part because of power problems. But he said FEMA had set up 27 distribution points in 27 southeastern Texas cities.

"I don't know what could have been done better since the materials were in place before the hurricane," Fredenburg said. "We're doing everything we can to get water and ice to whomever remains."

Perry, meanwhile, issued an emergency order allowing the utility Entergy to immediately erect temporary lines and plug into the Houston area's power supply to transfer electricity to the hardest-hit areas.

It could take three to four weeks to restore power to those areas of southeast Texas where nearly all transmission lines are down and homes are so damaged they can't safely receive electricity, said Paul Hudson, chairman of the state's Public Utility Commission.

Ortiz said he expects to allow residents back into Port Arthur by the weekend, even though as of yesterday, the industrial town of about 58,000 had no power, water or sewer service. Ortiz said it could take three to five weeks to restore electricity fully.

Associated Press reporters Pam Easton and Abe Levy contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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