Bush heads to Colorado, where Northern Command is preparing for Rita
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE – The U.S. Northern Command focused on evacuating medical patients requiring life support and specialized care on Friday while making sure troops were ready to go as Hurricane Rita bore down on the U.S. mainland.President Bush planned to arrive at the base later in the day to monitor the hurricane, which is forecast to hit Texas or southwest Louisiana on Saturday. He planned to stay overnight and follow the storm’s progress and the government’s response on Saturday.Bush had planned to visit Texas first but dropped that stop because search and rescue teams there were being relocated as the huge storm shifted course, the White House said.Traffic jammed major arteries leading out of the Gulf Coast and officials feared the hurricane could deliver a crippling blow to the nation’s oil-refining industry.This will be Bush’s first look at the command since it was created in October 2002 in response to the 2001 terrorist attacks.Lt. Cmdr. Sean Kelly said people inside the command center were monitoring troop movements, military evacuations and plans to deal with the aftermath of the storm. They were also preparing to deliver ice, generators, and trying to determine the number of doctors and field hospitals that would be needed.”That was one of the key things we learned from Katrina,” Kelly said.He said six ships – the USS Iwo Jima, USS Shreveport, USS Tortuga, USS Grapple, USNS Patuxent, and USNS Comfort – were following the storm to the Texas coast, where they were prepared to launch rescue efforts after the storm passes.Kelly said about 4,000 people were evacuated Thursday by military aircraft to safer hospitals in Texas and Louisiana.He said traffic control and protection of infrastructure, including oil refineries, was being left to the Texas National Guard.Northcom, headquartered at Peterson Air Force base in Colorado Springs, coordinates military support for domestic emergencies at the request of civilian authorities or agencies.The military assets are only deployed to support a federal agency, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, if local and state officials are overwhelmed and Northcom is asked for help.Navy Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of Northcom, acknowledged two weeks ago that the overall effort to help Hurricane Katrina victims could have been better. He said the command had lessons to learn, including how to better share information across more than 60 responding agencies.The top-secret facility has about 80 representatives of various agencies monitoring multiple computer screens that show real-time movements of troops, maritime assets, aircraft and missile launches.They also monitor satellite images from the National Weather Service and have their own full-time meteorologists.
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