WASHINGTON – The Pentagon on Saturday was sending about 500 active-duty soldiers to Louisiana and said 1,300 National Guardsmen (search) were in place to respond to Hurricane Rita. Five mortuary teams went to Texas.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (search) had four helicopters ready for search-and-rescue teams missions once the storm died down.
TheEnergy Department (search) said it appeared the oil industry, especially the concentration of refineries in the Houston-Texas City area, may have escaped major damage.
"We're cautiously optimistic about that region," department spokesman Craig Stevens said.
President Bush tracked Rita from an Air Force base in the Rocky Mountain foothills, getting reports on flooding, search and rescue efforts and damage caused by the storm more than 1,000 miles away.
Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff (search) traveled to the Northern Command to see how the military was working with state and local officials battling the hurricane.
Troops from the 82nd Airborne headed to Lafayette, La., about 135 miles west of New Orleans, to help with search-and-rescue efforts, said unit commander Maj. Gen. Bill Caldwell. He said about 3,200 of his soldiers would be prepared to go to Lafayette by Sunday, if needed.
Guardsmen on Katrina-relief duty in Louisiana were prepared to move quickly to new locations in response to Rita, according to the National Guard Bureau at the Pentagon. Additionally, about 1,300 National Guard soldiers in Mississippi were ready to move to area hit by Rita, if needed.
As a precaution, the U.S. Northern Command redirected mortuary teams from New Orleans to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, said spokeswoman Air Force Lt. Jody Vazquez. Five other teams were put on alert to support task forces responding to Rita and Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast nearly four weeks ago.
"Of course, we hope we don't have to use them," Vazquez said from the command's headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. "They are there to assist as necessary."
FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney said search-and-rescue teams would be looking for stranded people, but also to examine bridges, roads, chemical plans and oil refineries for emergency repairs as needed.
The Energy Department said it was too soon to assess damage to oil refineries in Beaumont-Port Arthur, which were in Rita's direct path.
"We're cautiously optimistic that the petroleum supply will be OK," Stevens said. "But we really need to look at the Port Arthur region and other areas directly impacted. ... It may still be two or three days before we get a sense of the actual picture."
The Houston and Texas City area has nine refineries with a combined capacity to process 2.3 million barrels of crude a day. Four refineries in Port Arthur and nearby Beaumont have a 1.7 million barrel a day capacity.
Soldiers from the Fort Bragg, N.C.-based 82nd Airborne planned to complete their relief work in re-flooded areas of northern New Orleans by late Saturday and then shift to areas of southwestern Louisiana damaged by Rita, Caldwell said.
Caldwell said he was not aware of other active-duty ground forces under orders to go to areas hit by Rita. He said Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, commander of all active-duty troops involved in the Katrina relief work, had moved his headquarters to Lafayette to focus on supporting civilian agencies responding to damage from Rita.
Guardsmen on alert in Louisiana include 300 members of an engineering group, 300 from a medical unit and 700 from an infantry unit, Guard Bureau officials said Saturday.
The Bush administration's mass mobilization for the storm sharply contrasted with its widely criticized preparations for Katrina. Still, Texas lawmakers reported fuel shortages and a lack of shelter for evacuated special-needs patients.
Anticipating Rita's landfall, FEMA stockpiled four days' worth of food, water and ice in Texas and Louisiana, and the Pentagon added 13,273 active-duty troops to the 36,108 National Guard personnel stationed throughout the region, Paulison said.