Rita Threatens Gulf Coast
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GWEN IFILL: Learning from Katrina. The water is stockpiled — bottled water — the ambulances are on standby and the National Guard is on alert. As the hurricane season prepares to land a second punch along the Gulf Coast, this time officials say they are poised to react.
We look at some of those preparations with Major John Jones, area commander for the metropolitan Houston Salvation Army; Dr. John D. Stobo, president of the University of Texas medical branch at Galveston; and Maj. Gen. Charles Rodriguez, the adjutant general for the Texas National Guard.
Maj. Gen. Rodriguez, are you prepared for Rita?
MAJ. GEN. CHARLES RODRIGUEZ: We are prepared. Our soldiers and our airmen are on standby and more of them are coming.
GWEN IFILL: Describe to me what you mean by prepared. How many soldiers, how many airmen? Where are they coming from?
MAJ. GEN. CHARLES RODRIGUEZ: The governor has put on notice 5,000 National Guardsmen from Texas, and we are at about the halfway point for readiness. The other half are coming from the soldiers who have previously deployed to Louisiana in support of Operation Katrina.
GWEN IFILL: And what do they do once they get there? Are you using them for the kinds of things that we saw in Louisiana and in Mississippi to keep the peace or are they standing by waiting to see what their role is?
MAJ. GEN. CHARLES RODRIGUEZ: Well, what’s happening right now is we are keeping our forces in assembly areas away from the impact area. We don’t want to harm the forces. They are in locations about a hundred and fifty/two hundred and fifty miles inland and able to respond first by aviation and then by wheeled vehicles.
GWEN IFILL: Dr. Stobo, tell us a little bit about what kind of evacuation preparations you have made at the hospital in Galveston.
DR. JOHN STOBO: Well, we began this morning about 8 o’clock using both helicopters and ambulances to evacuate patients from the hospital. We had approximately 577 patients in the hospital yesterday. This morning we had a little over 400, roughly 440 patients. Right now we have 70 patients in the hospital. We plan to probably stay at about 70 patients in the hospital and we’ll provide care for those patients with personnel who will stay throughout the storm.
GWEN IFILL: How many of those patients are unable to move on their own? We saw what happened in nursing homes in New Orleans, for instance.
DR. JOHN STOBO: Well, as of right now, we don’t have any patient in the hospital who is unable to move on their own. The patients who are in the hospital are patients who we feel we can provide healthcare to in a safe way or patients who don’t have any place to go. But they’re not critically ill patients. All of the critically ill patients have been removed from the hospital.
GWEN IFILL: Maj. Jones, you have been involved in the sheltering of evacuees from Louisiana as well as, I guess, preparing for what may happen if people… as people are evacuating now in Texas. What kind of strain has that put on you?
MAJ. JOHN JONES: Well, it’s put a great deal of strain upon us. We are still trying to figure out where Katrina ends and where Rita begins. We were operating two shelters ourselves and still have approximately 100 people in those two shelters that have not been placed in temporary housing yet, so consequently, we’re faced with the responsibility of evacuating some evacuees as well as our own residential shelters which we operate on an ongoing basis.
And then we’ve been operating a major distribution center for the Katrina persons which we now have to shut down as of today, move all of our equipment and try to salvage what supplies we can to a safe location so that we’ll be in good shape and ready to respond immediately as soon as the force of Rita has passed.
GWEN IFILL: When you say you’re trying to figure out where Katrina ends and where Rita begins, does it seem just like one continuing rolling disaster to you? Or are there different qualities?
MAJ. JOHN JONES: Well, no. That’s really it. They’re stacking on top of each other. It takes a tremendous toll on your personnel, your volunteers who are working hard for one disaster and then trying to recruit them back for a second one, your ongoing staff who are growing weary because you’re working twelve-fifteen-hour days, seven days a week through the whole thing.
We’re still trying to help Katrina victims for a very long term, which is an unusual part of a hurricane and then trying to then prepare for another one that comes in while overlapping the service that is still going on for Katrina.
GWEN IFILL: Maj. Gen. Rodriguez, as you try to decide where to deploy your National Guardsmen, some of them I know in Louisiana, there was some discussion that up to a third of the National Guardsmen were already deployed in Iraq; some of them came home. Is that also true in Texas?
MAJ. GEN. CHARLES RODRIGUEZ: The state of Texas has about one third of its soldiers and airmen currently deployed or in the pipeline, leaving close to two thirds or a little bit more than a half who are available. And many of those are poised and ready in the assembly areas.
GWEN IFILL: Do you work in concert with the local police, with the state police, with other law enforcement, or are you a separate entity as you enter into this kind of disaster assistance?
MAJ. GEN. CHARLES RODRIGUEZ: The National Guard works for the governor and we get our marching orders from the Division of Emergency Management here in Austin. They get requests from counties, from metropolitan mayors, and when the requirements exceed the capability of local officials, they request to the state and then the state makes a decision. We often provide that support at the state’s request.
GWEN IFILL: Dr. Stobo, as you prepare now for the onset of Rita, from what you saw at least at a distance in New Orleans and what you experienced in helping to shelter some of these evacuees from Louisiana, how has that experience affected what you’re preparing to do now?
DR. JOHN STOBO: Well, we had talked about evacuating patients from our hospital even before Katrina. It’s something quite different from us. This is the first time in 114 years that we have evacuated patients. Usually what we’ve done is let the patients who are the least ill go home and then take care of the sickest.
But what happened in New Orleans quickly solidified our thinking and made it clear that the best plan of action is to evacuate all the patients that we could from the hospital. So that’s… that made a very important turning point in our thinking and in our planning.
GWEN IFILL: I skipped over a little bit about what your role is in helping evacuees from Louisiana. Could you describe that for us?
DR. JOHN STOBO: Well, we took care of approximately 500 individuals in our clinics. We actually staffed a clinic in Galveston. We opened up our clinics on campus to the patients. We took care of about 50 patients in our hospital. So we certainly did some but not as much as many others in the Houston area did.
GWEN IFILL: Maj. Jones, the acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration today listed a long laundry list of things which he is prepared to do, which is creating portable hospitals, beds, water. Do you have stockpiles? Do you have with all of the effort that has been put forth for Katrina? Are there stacks of bottled water? Are there shelters already set up and ready to go?
MAJ. JOHN JONES: We did not normally keep stockpiles, but in this case we have gone out because we’ve had sufficient advanced warning. And even as of today we were stockpiling food mainly to help operate our mobile feeding units, which are going to be critical after a hurricane such as this as they go into the communities and try to help people with meals, which they can’t do because of lack of power or for whatever other reason.
So we have been stockpiling food and water and other items that we need for the immediate crisis. And then as soon as the crisis impact is over, we would move into a recovery phase and help people with cash vouchers and other kinds of sustenance to get them through the initial phases of getting their lives back together.
GWEN IFILL: The Red Cross has said that Katrina in their case has put strain on their ability to provide trained help to volunteer in these situations. Are you having that same type of difficulty?
MAJ. JOHN JONES: We’ve been very fortunate and the volunteers we have had come in are some very qualified volunteers who were very quick learners because we do have a very good volunteer program which is ongoing. And a number of these people are familiar with our Salvation Army operation.
But as the disaster wears on and becomes elongated, then the volunteers seem to fall off. I don’t think it’s as much quality as it has been quantity and longevity of the volunteer force.
GWEN IFILL: Maj. Gen. Rodriguez, let’s talk about evacuation for a moment. We have heard the mayor of Houston. We’ve heard the governor of Texas, every local official and the president of the United States urge people to leave, urge people to evacuate. Does the National Guard play a role or is it prepared for any kind of resistance to that evacuation order? Are people leaving?
MAJ. GEN. CHARLES RODRIGUEZ: Yes, people are leaving. Just as an example, two of our general officers in the National Guard are moving their families tonight as we speak. It’s the prudent thing to do. And that means that there will be less people who may have difficulties and need emergency assistance after the storm.
GWEN IFILL: What happens if people choose not to leave as happened in some cases in Louisiana?
MAJ. GEN. CHARLES RODRIGUEZ: Two things: One, they either weather it or they suffer the consequences. It all depends on Mother Nature and how severe it hits their area.
GWEN IFILL: And also back to the same question to you, Dr. Stobo. One of the interesting things we saw that happened after the hurricane hit in Louisiana was the health outcomes, that no one had seemed to take as much into account.
How are you preparing for the unexpected or the expected health outcomes from a potentially very lethal flood?
DR. JOHN STOBO: Well, we learned a lot from what happened after Katrina or what was possible to happen. And we have health personnel on site who will actually stay through the hurricane and be prepared to deal with the aftermath and the recovery. We have about a thousand individuals who we initially thought would have to stay and work with us to provide healthcare to the patients, but since we’ve been able to evacuate so many patients, we’ve been able to decrease that number of employees considerably.
But we will have people here to take care of the 70-some-odd patients that remain in the hospital as well as to provide healthcare to emergency workers and others in Galveston that are going to be needed for our emergency room and our trauma center.
GWEN IFILL: And, also, I should point out Galveston is a little different topographically than New Orleans is, and so you’re preparing differently perhaps?
DR. JOHN STOBO: Well, Galveston will flood with the storm surge and the rain but it will drain very quickly. And we have sufficient fuel to fuel our emergency generators for a little over three days. Certainly the island will drain within that time. And we can decide in that period of time whether we will have to evacuate further or whether we will be able to get additional supplies to continue to provide healthcare to the remaining patients as well as others who come to the facility.
GWEN IFILL: Gentlemen, thank you all and our best to you.
DR. JOHN STOBO: Thank you.