Ready for Rita?

No one can predict precisely where Hurricane Rita will slam to shore, but one thing is certain:

The federal government, reeling from an ongoing pummeling for its slow and bumbling response to Hurricane Katrina, is putting on a full-court press now to prepare for the coming ‘cane.

“Federal, state and local governments are coordinating their efforts to get ready,” President Bush said Wednesday. “We hope and pray that Hurricane Rita will not be a devastating storm, but we got to be ready for the worst.”

Unlike Katrina, Rita will be met by a phalanx of federal and other “first responders,” now getting into position for the expected landfall later this week, somewhere on the western reaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

Even with National Guard and Federal Emergency Management Agency resources stretched by the Katrina mop-up and recovery, officials say that _ with state, local and private help _ they can handle what is to come.

Here’s a look at the preparations so far:

_ The U.S. Northern Command, the military outfit in charge of homeland security, already has officers in Austin, Texas, ready to coordinate the swift dispatch of active-duty troops, rescue and supply helicopters, and material to the hurricane zone.

The USS Bataan, which played a key role after Katrina walloped Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama last month, is heading now for Mayport, Fla., where six Army MH helicopters will came aboard and the ship will stock up on supplies. Plans call for the warship to literally follow in Rita’s wake to be on the scene immediately after the storm blows through.

Other ships that have been part of the post-Katrina operations _the USS Tortuga, USNS hospital ship Comfort, USS Iwo Jima, USS Shreveport and the USS Grapple _ will all move east to avoid Rita, but will remain close enough to move in fast once the worst passes.

_The National Guard says more than 300,000 Guard soldiers and airmen are currently available from across the country for aftermath duty. Some of the 50,000 active-duty and Guard troops engaged in post-Katrina work can be quickly diverted to areas hurt by the new storm, FEMA officials said.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has already called home hundreds of state National Guard troops who have been helping in Louisiana and environs.

_ FEMA says it has mountains of water and packaged food already staged to be brought in after Rita hits.

Included are 45 truckloads of water, 45 truckloads of ice, and eight of military Meals Ready to Eat are now being organized in Texas. Another 50 truckloads of water and ice, and 20 loads of MREs are now in Florida, poised for fast transit affected areas.

Nine urban search and rescue task forces, consisting of about 130 people, are now assembling in Texas, along with nine disaster medical assistance teams _ made up of about 385 people. Also ready to roll from Florida are 140 medical and search and rescue personnel.

_ The Coast Guard, which played a pivotal role in the rescue of more than 10,000 people stranded by the flood that followed Katrina in Louisiana, teams of damage assessment, emergency response, and reconstruction experts on “immediate standby” in Florida.

The Guard also says it has helicopters at the ready at Air Stations in Houston, Corpus Christi, Texas, and Miami, as well as additional personnel at Station Fort Pierce, Fla.

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(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)