US government pledges to deliver fuel to evacuees

FEDERAL authorities began counting down to Hurricane Rita's arrival with last-minute promises to deliver fuel to hundreds of thousands of evacuees fleeing the shifting storm that covered half of the Gulf of Mexico.

US President George W Bush was to fly yesterday afternoon to his home state of Texas, where highways were jammed with people trying to escape Rita's expected landfall early today. The president was to review preparations and thank first responders who were among the hundreds of emergency personnel dispatched to expected disaster areas.

Later yesterday, Mr Bush was expected to monitor Rita's approach from the US Northern Command in Colorado.

The trip gives Mr Bush an opportunity to assess whether the US military should play a bigger role in major disasters.

Meanwhile, Mr Bush's cabinet met at the White House to begin assessing the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. Frances Fragos Townsend, Mr Bush's in-house homeland security adviser, is leading an administration investigation of "what went wrong and what went right" in the sluggish federal reaction.

An administration official said a series of measures would be announced to speed delivery of federally supported transitional housing for victims of Katrina.

Amid all the advance planning for Rita - including millions of euro of food and water, thousands of hospital beds and satellite phones - state officials pleaded for gasoline to replenish dwindling fuel supplies along evacuation routes.

Extra fuel was Texas Gov. Rick Perry's "No 1 request", Federal Emergency Management Agency acting director R David Paulison said.

"We are working to process that request now," said Mr Paulison, who enlisted the Pentagon and National Guard to deliver petrol.

Roads leading out of Houston "look like one giant parking lot", said Sen John Cornyn. "People are actually running out of fuel," he said.

FEMA officials spent much of the week fielding urgent requests from officials from a cramped command centre at the agency's Washington headquarters.

Rep Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, said the fuel shortage was just one area being overlooked in federal preparations.

She said a dearth of federal security screeners at Houston International Airport created long lines of airline passengers trying to get out of the city and she blamed Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for not planning ahead to prevent delays.

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