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Gov. Perry to name task force to examine evacuation processes

By Jennifer Bendery,

Austin, TX –

Barely averting a major disaster after Hurricane Rita decided against slaughtering Texas' coastline region, Gov. Rick Perry today joined with Houston Mayor Bill White and Harris County Judge Robert Eckels in announcing the creation of a task force to examine the process by which Texas evacuates major metropolitan areas in the face of a hurricane or tropical storm. Appointments will be made soon, he said, but will not include people from coastal regions since the primary focus of the task force will be on large urban regions.

"There has been a lot of attention on the evacuation effort" for Hurricane Rita, said Perry. Although he considers the evacuations a success because of early preparations and lives saved, the governor noted the complexity of evacuating major urban areas. Some of the problems encountered related to getting fuel to stranded cars and changing southbound highway lanes to northbound lanes to reduce traffic congestion.

Perry said the evacuation process was complicated by "the storm not necessarily cooperating with us." The initial point of impact was projected to be Port Lavaca, he said, but then the storm changed course. The evacuation effort "did not go flawlessly," said Perry, but the suggestion that state officials were "ill-prepared" to move three million people out of the Houston area "is a bit of a stretch."

The governor last week signed a waiver suspending registration requirements and limits on the number of hours that commercial vehicles can be operated while "traveling within or into Texas to assist with relief efforts." When asked about the relationship between the waiver and an incident involving a Dallas-bound bus previously taken out of service that burst into flames and killed 24 passengers after sitting in traffic for 14 hours, Perry said there was no connection. The waiver was about vehicles heading into "impacted areas" with food and water, he said, noting that things like insurance, driver's licenses and permits were still in effect under the law.

The governor said it is still "a bit early" to know how many homes were impacted by the storm. As for an estimate on financial damages, the most recent projection is approximately $8.2 billion, he said.

Perry also announced that he is sending a letter to President Bush requesting that Texas be reimbursed at the same level of funding for Hurricane Rita as for Hurricane Katrina. While Hurricane Katrina was more destructive than Hurricane Rita, Perry said "it makes sense" that Texas be reimbursed the same amount for both hurricanes since Hurricane Rita did so much more damage to Texas. He said the letter asks that the hurricanes be designated as "one natural disaster" for administrative purposes.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) notified Texas that it would approve 100 percent reimbursement of some costs for a 72-hour period related to Hurricane Rita but then would drop to 75 percent reimbursement. FEMA has approved 100 percent reimbursement to Texas on costs associated with assisting victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Hurricane Rita could have been worse, said Perry, but East Texas "took a massive hit. Rita is a true catastrophe to many." He said he anticipates the recovery effort to be expensive, which is why the state needs the same level of reimbursement from the federal government.

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