WASHINGTON - The Bush administration declared a public health emergency for the entire Gulf Coast on Wednesday, pledging an unprecedented rescue-and-relief response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. They rushed 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 Secretary Michael Chertoff said at a briefing.
Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said his agency is concerned about potential disease outbreaks and was sending medical experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He urged residents of the coastal area to boil water and follow food safety precautions as well as to avoid situations that might lead to carbon monoxide poisoning from electricity generators.
He also said that mental health personnel were being sent to the area.
Chertoff said: "The situation in all affected areas remains very dangerous."
Declaration of a public health emergency simplifies procedures 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.
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 anti-pollution standards for gasoline are being eased throughout the country until Sept. 15, a step 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 is going to be to help people find shelter with food and water in safe conditions, he said, followed by assessing the damage and figuring out what needs to be done to begin repairs.
Chertoff said he couldn't estimate the number of deaths or the costs of the recovery effort.
Assistant Defense Secretary Paul McHale said the National Guard will assist local civilian authorities in law enforcement at the request of governors. The president can use active duty military to restore order, he said, but added that such a step isn't likely.
In what it said was its largest-ever mobilization, the Red Cross reported that more than 45,000 victims of Hurricane Katrina were housed in its shelters Wednesday and 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.
Emergency response vehicles are also in the area providing food but they are operating from fixed bases since they cannot yet get into neighborhoods because of the damage, Daley said. She said it has been a major undertaking to get people and materials into the region and that it will take time.
"This is our largest mobilization in the history of the organization," she said.
Responding to suggestions that cruise ships might be used to assist storm victims, Christine Fischer, spokeswoman for the International Council of Cruise Lines, said the cruise lines are in talks with the government.
"It is a possibility," she said. "This is something that the cruise industry is exploring." But, she added, "We're trying to figure out if you're even able to get a ship up the river."
Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency urged people who evacuated before the storm to stay where they are.
Michael D. Brown, head of FEMA said: "We need everyone's cooperation to keep passable roads clear and to prevent those returning from placing additional burdens on the limited shelter, food and water in the heavily impacted areas."
He said returning residents could face blocked and washed out roads, downed power lines across highways, unsafe road crossings due to flooding and many other dangers.
In other developments:
-The State Department said the New Orleans passport office, which handles 17 percent of the nation's passport applications, is closed. The agency is working to reroute new cases to other locations.
-The Transportation Department dispatched more than 400 trucks to move 5.4 million MREs (read-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; 1 all-terrain vehicle; 19 forklifts and three 100-person and nine 50-person field office kits to flood damaged areas for FEMA.
-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. An additional eight swift water rescue teams have been deployed, FEMA said.
-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 highly trained personnel with vehicles and small rigid-hulled boats capable of rescuing stranded citizens from flooded areas.
-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. Bataan's hospital may also be used for medical support.
-The hospital ship USNS Comfort was departing Baltimore to bring medical assistance capabilities to the Gulf region, and should arrive in seven days.
-The Department of Health and Human Services said 250 mobile hospital beds and associated equipment have arrived at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Thirty-eight Public Health Service officers are at the facility and along with disaster medical assistance teams and State health care professionals.