WACO, Texas – Baby formula from the Agriculture Department, communications equipment and medical teams from the Defense Department and generators, water and ice from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are among the assistance ready for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
As the Category 4 the storm surged ashore just east of New Orleans on Monday, FEMA had medical teams, rescue squads and groups prepared to supply food and water poised in a semicircle around the city, said agency Director Michael Brown.
Brown, in a telephone interview with The Associated Press, said the evacuation of the city and the general emergency response were working as planned in an exercise a year ago. "I was impressed with the evacuation, once it was ordered it was very smooth," he said. And with the storm moving north, Brown said he expects to see flooding in Tennessee and the Ohio Valley.
While federal, state and local agencies were poised to help, recovery could be a slow process.
The American Red Cross said it had about 200,000 volunteers mobilized for the hurricane, the "largest single mobilization that we've done for any single natural disaster," said spokesman Bradley Hague. The organization set up operational headquarters in Baton Rouge.
With its partners -- local churches and community organizations -- the Red Cross said it expected to serve about 500,000 meals a day to those displaced by the hurricane.
Former Army Corps of Engineers commander Robert B. Flowers said a major hurricane striking near New Orleans is a worst case scenario.
"I couldn't even begin to estimate the billions of dollars in damage that are going to result. You could have water several feet deep in the city for days before the pumps can discharge it," said Flowers, now CEO of HNTB Federal Services in Arlington, Va.
Speaking earlier Monday from Baton Rouge, just upriver from New Orleans, Brown said that his agency had "planned for this kind of disaster for many years because we've always known about New Orleans' situation." Much of the city is below sea level, making it extremely vulnerable to storm flooding.
The potential damage of such a storm striking New Orleans has long been a worry of federal agencies including the National Weather Service, FEMA and the Environmental Protection Agency, among others.
In other storm-related moves:
-- The EPA dispatched emergency crews to Louisiana and Texas, because of concern about oil and chemical spills. The agency has set up facilities for checking on the damage, but won't be able to quickly assess the region's needs until it can safely send more people into the field.
Sam Coleman, a regional director for EPA's Superfund toxic waste division in Dallas, said an employee standing by in Baton Rouge will oversee the agency's after-storm review of petrochemical, wastewater treatment and drinking water plants.
"Once that rapid assessment is done, then we go into full force," Coleman told AP. "We don't want to put everybody too close to the storm until we figure out exactly what to do."
"We have the equipment standing by, an aspect plane for surveillance that can see petrochemical spills from the air, but it's not cleared to fly in high winds or dangerous weather," he said.
-- The Coast Guard closed ports and waterways along the Gulf Coast and evacuated its own personnel and equipment.
More than 40 Coast Guard aircraft from units along the entire Eastern Seaboard, along with more than 30 small boats, patrol boats and cutters, were positioned around the area to be ready to conduct post-hurricane search and rescue operations and to do waterway damage checks and begin any needed repairs.
-- The Agriculture Department said it will provide meals and other commodities, such as infant formula, distilled water for babies and emergency food stamps, through its Food and Nutrition Service.
Its Natural Resources Conservation Service has an emergency watershed protection program. Its Rural Development office offers housing assistance to keep people from being delinquent on housing payments. The Farm Service Agency has state emergency boards with members who will help assess damage to agriculture and help decide the type and amount of recovery aid available in areas where disasters have been declared.
Also, the Forest Service, which is part of the department, has an incident command team that will coordinate with FEMA and the Red Cross.
-- The Federal Aviation Administration said airports were closed in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La.; Biloxi, Miss.; Mobile, Ala.; Pensacola, Fla. and at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Airlines have moved their equipment away from the stricken areas and canceled all flights, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said. Many air traffic control facilities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are closed.
-- The Defense Department dispatched emergency coordinators to Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi to provide a wide range of assistance including communications equipment, search and rescue operations, medical teams and other emergency supplies.
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said the states have adequate National Guard units to handle the hurricane needs, with at least 60 percent of the guard available in each state. He said about 6,500 National Guard troops were available in Louisiana, about 7,000 troops in Mississippi, nearly 10,000 in Alabama and about 8,200 in Florida.
The First U.S. Army, based at Fort Gillem near Atlanta, has 1,600 National Guard troops that were there training to go to Iraq, and they will be available to assist the states or evacuate Camp Shelby in Mississippi, if necessary.