Aid workers brace for 2nd storm

Relief groups prepare for Rita while caring for Katrina survivors

Hurricane Rita

September 22, 2005|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun reporter

After a grueling three weeks, disaster relief providers could use some relief themselves - but taking a break is, for now, a very distant dream.

With a second major hurricane following so closely on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, relief organizations across the country were scrambling yesterday to prepare for the next natural disaster without disrupting service to Katrina survivors.

Some emergency workers acknowledged that resources and volunteers were running thin. Others put a positive spin on the one-two blow, saying that Katrina had taught them a few helpful lessons and that they are braced and ready as Hurricane Rita heads for the Texas coast. Everyone, however, agreed on one thing: They are tired.

"We've been working three weeks straight with little time off," said Jan Pruitt, the chief executive of a food bank in North Texas that has been helping to feed Katrina evacuees. "I'm really worried about the energy level of those who do the work."

Gary Smith, the disaster relief volunteer coordinator at Texas Baptist Men, also is worried about the toll that stress will take on his crews. Now he has a fresh concern: He's in the process of pulling 120 volunteers, who had been working in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, back home.

"It certainly becomes a lower priority than dealing with Rita," he said, adding that the shift in priorities means that restoration in areas devastated by Katrina will take that much longer.

At other agencies, including the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army, the outlook was less grim.

"It's really beefing up versus stretching resources," said Kelly Warner, a Dallas-based spokeswoman for the Salvation Army.

About 50 percent of the organization's mobile feeding units still are in Louisiana, "but we're not going to pull them out because they're still in desperate need there," she said. Instead, officials are sending in equipment and other resources from the Midwest, West and elsewhere. A giant mobile kitchen that can produce 5,000 meals a day is coming in from New York. Fresh teams are heading south from Canada.

The Red Cross also plans to keep most of its post-Katrina efforts in place. "It helps that there's a time difference, and each of these disaster operations is in a different phase of services that we're providing," said southeast regional spokeswoman Laura Howe. "Some of the resources we used in sheltering and feeding Katrina survivors may now be available for Rita."

One bit of silver lining is that, overall, providers are saying they are better prepared for round two.

Pruitt, of North Texas Food Bank, said the group also has been stockpiling food and is working closely with other food banks to cement plans in advance.

"We're planning for lack of communication, which we didn't do with Katrina," Pruitt said. "They're working on a relay system. ... . We also know that text messaging works during hurricanes and voice doesn't, and we didn't know that before."

Organizers at Texas Baptist Men, also hampered by poor communication during Hurricane Katrina, now have 20 ham radio operators at the ready. They also are better prepared to deliver water and ice, basic commodities they ran out of in Louisiana. A recent influx of volunteers means that people from 11 states are heading to Texas to help, Smith said.

In Houston, representatives from disaster response organizations had been meeting with the mayor every day because of Hurricane Katrina, said Brian Greene of Houston Food Bank.

"You were already at the table working through these issues," Greene said. "Houston had to work on building up disaster relief infrastructure, and now it has a large disaster relief infrastructure already in place, and I can't imagine how that won't help."

In addition, residents and providers have learned the hard way to take the violence and unpredictability of nature more seriously.

"People saw what happened when they didn't listen to the evacuation orders," said Warner at the Salvation Army. "I think it was a real eye-opener for people everywhere."

Even some of those used to contending with disasters said their attitude toward storms has been permanently altered.

"Katrina caused us to look at the worst-case scenario seriously," Smith said. "Usually we don't really believe it, and now we do."

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