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Lessons learned from Katrina

Officials in place, focusing on communications, quick response

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HURRICANE RITA

2 p.m. ET
Location:
460 miles SE of Galveston, Texas
Latitude: 25.5 North
Longitude: 89.2 West
Movement: West-northwest at 9 mph
Winds: 150 mph

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GALVESTON, Texas (CNN) -- As Category 4 Hurricane Rita headed toward the Gulf Coast, thousands of residents in the greater Houston area jammed highways Thursday only to sit in traffic that moved no faster than a pedestrian's gait.

One man trying to flee the city with his wife and two dogs described I-45 as "a parking lot" and that they had been on the highway nine hours -- and covered only 20 miles.

Forecasters say Rita could make landfall in Texas somewhere between Galveston and Port Arthur.

The hurricane "will have a very large impact over a very large area of Texas, Louisiana, and even ... into Mississippi and Alabama," said National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield. (Full story)

Katrina devastated southeastern Louisiana and coastal Mississippi as a Category 4 hurricane less than a month ago.

Local, state and military leaders said Thursday they were implementing emergency response plans with valuable lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina.

Officials said they were working to round up fuel trucks to deliver gasoline to fleeing motorists who'd run out . And efforts were being made to turn southbound lanes into northbound ones.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry tried to soothe motorists who found themselves in massive gridlock. "Stay calm. Stay patient. You've done the right thing," he said.

And FEMA's acting director, R. David Paulson, urged drivers not to turn around.

"If they stay on the road now, they're going to have enough time to get out of harm's way," he said.

People trying to flee by air faced lengthy snarls at Houston's two airports, when as many as 100 security screeners failed to report for work.

To replace them, 110 Transportation Security Administration personnel were being reassigned from Dallas, but their arrival was being delayed, Houston Mayor Bill White said.

Commercial flights out of Houston will be stopped at noon Friday.

By contrast, most of Houston's 72 hospitals, with some 16,000 beds, were planning to stay open.

About 9,000 special-needs residents are expected to be evacuated by air from Houston and Beaumont by Friday morning.

Standing by in San Antonio and Fort Worth were rapid-response teams and 78 tractor-trailer rigs of ice and water, said Jack Cooley, the coordinator of Texas' state division of emergency management.

Many relief agencies, government officials, shippers, reporters, oil rig workers and others, whose ability to communicate was lost when Katrina toppled cell-phone towers, have switched to satellite phones.

But on Thursday those communications were disrupted when the Inmarsat M4 satellite system became overloaded, an Inmarsat employee told CNN.

The Texas National Guard expects communications between officials to have improved after Katrina, said Maj. Gen. Charles Rodriguez.

Officials learned two primary lessons from Katrina, he said: "Quick response, get in there, establish order and assist people immediately who may need it. And then the second thing is coordination -- coordination between the military and ... the civil authorities, especially those who are the elected officials who hold ultimate responsibility."

The State Department has reached out to governments with consulates and nationals in Houston to offer assistance.

No plans were being made to evacuate inmates, said Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas. In fact, about 900 inmates from Galveston were set to arrive in Houston jails.

Pets to be evacuated, too

In the days after Katrina, officials were accused of not moving fast enough to help victims in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast.

Many people waited days to be rescued from flooded areas, or found themselves stranded without food or water, a situation that has not been lost on Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas.

"The city of Galveston has plans to exist without outside help at all for at least three days, because New Orleans was cut off for so long," she said.

Thomas also has taken note of New Orleans victims who found themselves in jeopardy because they refused to evacuate without their pets.

"Our buses took around 2,400 people -- and probably more -- out of here yesterday, [and evacuees] were allowed to take their pets," Thomas said. "That was one lesson learned: that people will not leave their pets."

In 1900 Galveston lost at least 6,000 residents after a hurricane flattened the city, which is built on an island in the Gulf of Mexico.

This time, about 90 percent of Galveston's nearly 58,000 residents already had left, said City Manager Steve LeBlanc. "It feels like a ghost town to me," he told reporters.

Emergency officials, however, were planning to ride out the storm, he said. They've booked more than 200 rooms at the San Luis Resort, which includes some of the 8-foot-thick walls of the fort formerly on the site.

Requests for help

After Katrina, Louisiana officials were accused of not asking federal officials for specific help to deal with the storm. Texas' chief of homeland security, Steve McCraw, said Thursday his department was "on record" with specific requests to Washington.

"We're not afraid to ask our federal partners for extra resources," McCraw said.

Perry, Texas' governor, said he has asked President Bush, a former Texas governor, for 10,000 federal troops to help with search-and-rescue efforts after Rita makes landfall. Perry already has activated 5,000 National Guard troops. In addition, more than 1,000 state troopers were awaiting the arrival of the storm. (Watch Galveston residents prepare for Rita -- 1:22)

Federal Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he has designated Rear Adm. Larry Hereth, the U.S. Coast Guard's director of port security, as the primary federal official for Rita response efforts.

"It's really all hands on deck to deal with this storm," Chertoff said. "We've now prepositioned or are in the process of prepositioning a lot of supplies. We've got helicopters on standby." (Watch Chertoff explain what's been learned since Katrina -- 3:50)

Mayor Henry Garrett said Corpus Christi residents also have learned from Katrina.

"I think what took place in New Orleans got their attention big time," Garrett said Thursday. "I think the level of awareness is a lot higher today than it would have been maybe a month ago. So we're very pleased with the way they're responding." (Watch Corpus Christi's mayor discuss lessons learned -- 2:07)

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