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Aid groups sending rescuers, supplies

Residents warned recovery could takes weeks

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Coast Guard Petty Officer Steven Huerta hoists two children into a rescue helicopter Monday.

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(CNN) -- Hundreds of thousands of people in Gulf Coast states are without homes or power in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and aid agencies are warning the situation might not improve for weeks, maybe months.

Veteran staff members from the Federal Emergency Management Agency who have surveyed the destruction said the flood damage is the worst they have ever seen, the head of the agency said.

"This is truly a catastrophic event," Michael Brown told CNN.

FEMA is preparing to house "at least tens of thousands of victims ... for literally months on end," he said.

Officials in hurricane-affected areas are urging evacuees and others to stay put. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco ordered re-entry routes to be guarded by state police, saying it was too dangerous for many people to return home.

Officials in other states were still trying to assess the damage.

On Monday, President Bush declared Louisiana and Mississippi disaster areas, making federal funds available to affected residents.

Katrina crashed ashore about 5 a.m. (6 a.m. ET) Monday near Buras, Louisiana, with 140 mph winds. It was the most powerful hurricane to strike the area since the legendary Hurricane Camille in 1969, which killed 256 people.

The American Red Cross has launched the largest natural disaster mobilization in its history, larger than services for last year's four Florida hurricanes combined, the organization's president, Marty Evans, told CNN.

"We had staged extensive supplies, meals, cleanup kits, hygiene kits -- all staged to come into the area as soon as the roads are passable," she said. "They will be coming in, augmenting what we already had on the scene."

More than 75,000 people were being housed in nearly 240 shelters, and Evans said she expects the numbers to grow.

"It's going to be a long-term operation," Evans said. "We're talking many, many weeks, months."

Many people are trapped by rising floodwaters and need to be rescued.

In east New Orleans, rescuers pulled out as many as 500 people, in some cases using axes to break through roofs and reach people in attic areas. Not everyone made it out, apparently -- witnesses reported seeing bodies floating near Interstate 10, the north border of the district.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard Web site, at least 40 aircraft and 30 ships were put into position ahead of time to help in post-storm searches and rescues. Seven helicopters were aiding in efforts in New Orleans, the Web site said.

U.S. Coast Guard rescuer Mark Vislay told CNN his helicopter "took on 15" people.

"As soon as you came down in their area, people were coming out of everywhere," he said. "There were small fires all over the place. A little bit of, you know, gasoline and oil coming out from gas stations, etc. Power lines down, trees split in half, fallen down. So it was definitely something that was pretty shocking to you."

Some air operations continued during the night, he said, but potential dangers such as live, underwater power lines made boat operations too dangerous. After sunrise Tuesday, rescuers set out again to reach the dozens, perhaps hundreds, who are still in their homes.

The U.S. Coast Guard says its crews assisted in the rescue of about 1,200 people stranded by high water in the New Orleans area Monday and thousands more were rescued Tuesday morning.

In Mississippi, U.S. Highway 90 was underwater, initially preventing officials from assessing the damage. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said he will send 800 National Guard troops to Mississippi to help with debris removal and traffic control.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour took a helicopter tour of the areas that were most affected, especially the coastal region that took the brunt of the battering when Katrina came ashore.

A National Guard spokesman in Arlington, Virginia, said more than 125,000 forces had been activated in 19 states and Washington, D.C., to help local agencies with traffic control, security, distributing food, and search and rescue.

The U.S. military's Northern Command has asked the Pentagon to set up a hurricane relief joint task force to help coordinate relief efforts, officials told CNN.

The task force, if approved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, would include active duty military and the National Guard, the officials said.

Also, officials in Fairfax, Virginia, and Montgomery County, Maryland, said search-and-rescue teams based there will deploy to Mississippi to help look for victims. Each team has about three dozen people and four dogs.

Power companies in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi estimated Tuesday that more than 2,500,000 customers were without power.

Curt Hebert Jr., executive vice president of Entergy Corp., which has power customers in Louisiana, including New Orleans and Mississippi, said it would take "several days" just to get a basic assessment of the damage.

"Many of our facilities are still flooded," he said. "When it's safe to get out there, we will get out there."

Herbert cautioned patience for those looking for progress on the recovery front.

"It's going to take more time than they're comfortable with," he told CNN. "And there's just no way to put this into a time frame. You can't get crews in there to work until the water's down."

CNN's Mike Ahlers, Paul Courson and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

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