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US declares emergency, orders rush on relief supplies

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration declared a public health emergency for the entire Gulf Coast yesterday, pledging an unprecedented rescue-and-relief response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Officials acted to rush food, medicine, and water to victims.

''We will work tirelessly to ensure that our fellow citizens have the sustained support and the necessary aid to recover and reclaim their homes, their lives, and their communities," Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff said at a briefing.

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said his agency was concerned about the potential for outbreaks of disease and was sending medical experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He urged residents of the coastal area to boil water and to follow food safety precautions as well as to avoid situations that might lead to carbon monoxide poisoning from generators.

Chertoff said: ''The situation in all affected areas remains very dangerous."

Declaration of a public health emergency simplifies procedures that the government must follow in awarding grants or contracts to help prevent or treat health threats. Money for this work comes from a public health emergency fund.

The transportation secretary, Norman Y. Mineta, said his agency is working to restore highways, airports, seaports, and oil pipelines in the region. And he said generators are being moved to pipeline pumping stations to restore the flow of oil to the region.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson said antipollution standards for gasoline are being eased throughout the country until Sept. 15. That step is expected to allay shortages.

''Then first stage is, of course, life-saving," Chertoff said. ''We've made a lot of progress in that respect."

A second stage will be to help people find shelter with food and water in safe conditions, he said, followed by assessing damage and determining the means for repairs.

In what it said was its largest mobilization, the Red Cross reported that more than 45,000 victims of Hurricane Katrina were in its shelters yesterday and that the number was growing steadily.

Some 250 shelters were open in the storm-damaged area, and the Red Cross set up 15 emergency kitchens capable of feeding 350,000 people, spokeswoman Deborah Daley said. ''We are focused on providing the most elemental essentials . . . food, shelter, and water," she said.

Responding to suggestions that cruise ships might be used to assist storm victims, Christine Fischer, a spokeswoman for the International Council of Cruise Lines, said the lines are in talks with the government.

''It is a possibility," she said.

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency urged people who evacuated before the storm to stay where they are.

In other developments yesterday:

The Transportation Department dispatched more than 400 trucks to move 5.4 million ready-to-eat meals; 13.4 million liters of water; 10,400 tarps; 4,900 rolls of plastic sheeting; 3.4 million pounds of ice; 10 mobile homes; 144 generators; 20 containers of disaster supplies; 135,000 blankets; 11,000 cots; 200 tables; 450 chairs; an all-terrain vehicle; 19 forklifts; and 12 field office kits.

Eighteen Urban Search and Rescue task forces and two Incident Support Teams have been deployed and prepositioned in Shreveport, La., and Jackson, Miss., including teams from Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

The number of people rescued or assisted by the Coast Guard climbed to 1,250.

The Defense Department's Transportation Command was flying eight swift-water rescue teams from California to Lafayette, La. These teams will provide approximately 14 personnel.

The USS Bataan sailed to the waters off Louisiana to provide support. Four helicopters from the Bataan were flying medical evacuation and search-and-rescue missions in Louisiana.

The hospital ship USNS Comfort was leaving Baltimore to bring medical assistance.

The Department of Health and Human Services said 250 mobile hospital beds have arrived at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

An additional 10,000 National Guard troops from across the country began arriving in the devastated Gulf Coast region yesterday.

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