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Massive federal relief effort under way

FEMA sends rescue teams, Pentagon sends ships, helicopters

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Victims of Hurricane Katrina -- some of whom escaped with only their lives -- soon will get help from a massive federal relief effort led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Pentagon.

The FEMA effort includes search teams to find victims trapped in the attics of their homes and rescuers specialized in searching collapsed buildings.

Other teams will set up field hospitals, provide mortuary services and treat injured animals.

The Pentagon effort includes the Navy amphibious assault ship USS Bataan, whose helicopters have been flying relief missions from off the Louisiana coast.

The ship, which resembles a small aircraft carrier, can produce large quantities of fresh water and is equipped with 600 hospital beds. (Watch video report on storm-related health risks)

Several other ships, including a rescue and salvage vessel and the USS Iwo Jima, another amphibious assault ship, are on their way from Norfolk, Virginia, the Navy said.

The USNS Comfort, a floating hospital based in Baltimore, Maryland, will depart in coming days. A medical crew from Bethesda Naval Hospital will staff the ship. It has full hospital capabilities, including operating rooms and hundreds of beds.

More than 125,000 National Guard troops have been activated in 19 states and Washington, D.C., to help local agencies with traffic control, security, distributing food, and search and rescue, a Guard spokesman said.

The Coast Guard, whose crews have been assisting in the rescue of people stranded by high water in the New Orleans area, is recalling 550 reservists to assist in the relief effort.

The Air Force said it was sending two large cargo planes to the region -- a C-5 Galaxy to Louisiana and a C-17 to Mississippi.

Besides humanitarian aid, the C-5 is bringing in swift boats, which can maneuver in shallow floodwaters to ferry rescue workers and victims. The C-17 is outfitted to evacuate 36 sick and injured people at a time.

The Air Force also deployed MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to Mississippi for search and rescue efforts.

The Pentagon's Northern Command was setting up a joint relief task force at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, to coordinate military efforts with FEMA, officials said.

Long-term relief

Aid agency officials have warned conditions might not improve in Louisiana and Mississippi for weeks, maybe months.

FEMA is preparing to house "at least tens of thousands of victims ... for literally months on end," said Michael Brown, the agency's chief.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco told reporters Tuesday after touring the affected areas in her state that "people are going to have to draw on their inner strength like we've never, ever had to do before. It's going to be, in some neighborhoods, total rebuilding."

Life-saving work remains to be done, Blanco said. "We think there are still some regions that have not been reached" by rescue workers, she said.

On Monday, Blanco and officials in Mississippi urged evacuees and others to stay put, saying it was too dangerous for many people to return home. Blanco ordered re-entry routes guarded by state police. (Emergency info)

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

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, said the organization's president, Marty Evans.

"We had staged extensive supplies, meals, cleanup kits, hygiene kits -- all staged to come into the area as soon as the roads are passable," Evans said.

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," she said. "We're talking many, many weeks, months."

FEMA issued a list of organizations for those seeking to assist victims. (How to help)

Chainsaws and search dogs

Seven of the 18 Urban Search and Rescue task forces FEMA has deployed were already in the region before the storm struck Sunday.

Each consists of 70 people trained to conduct operations after earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and other disasters.

They have enough food, water, batteries, fuel and camping supplies to be self-sufficient for several days, so they will not drain the resources of the communities they are there to help.

They also have search dogs, chainsaws, tools, bullhorns, spray paint for marking houses, and other gear.

Such teams assisted at the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing rescue effort, at earthquakes in Turkey and Greece in 1999, and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

In addition, search and rescue teams from local governments around the country are on their way.

The 39 Disaster Medical Assistance Teams that FEMA has deployed include specialists to handle burns, pediatrics, crush injuries, surgery and mental health.

Six teams are in the region, including five that arrived at the Superdome in New Orleans after the storm passed.

The most deployed for any of the hurricanes last year was five, one official told CNN.

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

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