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Given the challenges that face him now, as gas prices jump up three more floors and Congress revolts and the global war on hurricanes threatens to break the budget, the President did get a break from the Rita replay. For all the complaints about Bush's handling of Katrina, it was Texas Senator John Cornyn who noted that "when you dial 911, it doesn't ring at the White House." While federal officials were much more attentive this time, officials in Texas showed they could make the machinery work together. Katrina was a pop quiz for Texas emergency chief Jack Colley, an ex-military man whose office is practically empty except for a few baseball caps, a picture of an old dog and a thick walking stick topped by a pilot's joy stick. He's a man who knows the sheriffs and mayors and agency heads by name. The state has held 150 simulation tests, including a cascading nightmare of a nuclear power leak, a Category 4 hurricane in Corpus Christi and a nuclear terrorist attack. Perry told Bush not to even consider drafting Colley when the Governor thought the President might be in the market for some experienced disaster hands in Washington.
In the state operations center, a former cold war nuclear shelter in Austin, Perry let Colley manage the conference calls. One sheriff wanted to know whether he would be reimbursed for the gasoline he provided to federal agencies. Another said he was overwhelmed with evacuees and was worried about security along the roadways where people with knives were fighting over gas. Perry dealt with the politicians. House majority leader Tom DeLay called for the fourth or fifth time. His district would probably escape the worst, but he wanted to be sure enough National Guard troops had been called up. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff had been calling four times a day. Bush called four times and by late Saturday had gone home to Austin to see the operation for himself.
One disaster is a test of readiness; a second is a test of character. For those already wearing I SURVIVED KATRINA T shirts, it was a cruel challenge to their resilience. "It feels like it's following us," said a New Orleans evacuee. They were like Israelites in the desert. There was talk of moving ... to another planet. The next best thing, maybe, was Mexico. Some evacuees headed south because it was home, others on the chance that they might have to be gone for a long time, and life on the run would be cheaper there.
Once you've lost everything, there is little left to mourn. More than windows and walls, hope is hard to repair once it is broken. "It's like watching a murder," said a repeat evacuee in Lafayette, La. "The first time is bad. After that, you numb up." But if anything, the storm had the opposite effect on the officials in charge of responding to it. They were anything but numb--rather, aware that something profound had changed in the efforts and expectations. And that this was only the beginning. --Reported by Cathy Booth Thomas, Deborah Fowler and Wendy Grossman/Houston, Matthew Cooper/Washington, Hilary Hylton/Austin, Tim Padgett and Amanda Ripley/New Orleans, Adam Pitluk/Beaumont, Sean Scully/Philadelphia and Deirdre van Dyk/New York