The U.S. Defense Department is responding to requests for help from officials in Texas and Louisiana, as Hurricane Rita threatens to cause widespread destruction during the next few days.
The state governors in Texas and Louisiana have already requested thousands of federal troops to supplement their own state capabilities and National Guard forces. The chief Defense Department spokesman, Lawrence DiRita, says the military will respond, but needs to know what capabilities the troops should have, and the plan needs to be coordinated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"What we're doing now is working with the FEMA officials, working with the state officials to completely understand exactly what they need, what kinds of capability - medical support, search and rescue, fuel assistance - and provide the capability that's needed,"said Lawrence DiRita. "And the specific numbers are less telling than the actual capabilities."
Mr. DiRita says the military has already responded to a request for aircraft to evacuate 4,000 people from the storm's path who could not get out on their own. He says many of them could not walk, and others had what he called 'special needs.' Mr. DiRita says the military evacuated all four thousand people on 39 flights within 18 hours.
It is that type of capability that President Bush spoke of last week when he said the military is the only organization that has the ability to provide the type of help that is needed, on a large scale and quickly when disasters strike.
Local and federal civilian officials are in charge, and the military waits to be asked to help. But that does not stop commanders from moving supplies, aircraft, ships and military specialists into position. That includes coordination teams, which have been in place in Texas for several days, and in Louisiana since before Hurricane Katrina hit nearly four weeks ago. In addition, the military has sent 26 helicopters to the new storm zone, and six navy ships will follow the storm through the Gulf of Mexico to the Texas coast to provide additional help. That includes the huge hospital ship, the Comfort, and several others which left the Katrina area earlier this week to avoid being damaged by the approach of Hurricane Rita.
A senior army general has already been designated to coordinate the military role in relief efforts for the new storm. That was not done for Hurricane Katrina until later in the relief process. And the military has sent five communications teams to Texas with satellite telephones and radios. A lack of communications was a major problem in areas affected by Katrina because local phone and cellular systems were knocked out by the storm.
But Mr. DiRita says the biggest difference this time is that civilians are taking the threat more seriously.
"I think what's most different is that everybody is aware that these things have a huge impact and in many cases an unpredictable impact," he said. "So, the citizens of the states seem to be quite serious about understanding that this is real and they need to follow the instructions of state and local officials. Obviously, we've got some forces that are already staged in the Gulf Coast area, so we'll be able to provide some assistance as may be needed in both states."
Meanwhile, the spokesman noted that Texas has mobilized more than 3,000 National Guard troops under the control of the state governor, and may mobilize 2,000 more. In addition, he said National Guard units from three other states are preparing to go to Texas to help if they are needed.
Mr. DiRita could not say whether the federal troops would be used more for relief efforts to free the National Guard troops to provide law enforcement. Federal troops are prohibited by law from doing so inside the United States. But the spokesman said it could work out that way. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes in eastern Texas, and a similar situation in New Orleans earlier this month led to widespread looting because there were no police or National Guard troops to stop it.