With the Pentagon Disaster Planners

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Last Monday was supposed to be the final day for the 22 soldiers who have been working 16-hour days tracking the weather, fielding requests for equipment and troops, and preparing updates for generals in a cramped jerry-rigged Katrina operations center the basement of the Pentagon. Recovery efforts for that hurricane were to have wound down enough so that these reserve and National Guard soldiers could get to go back to their families and civilian jobs. But the approach of Hurricane Rita changed all that.

On Friday the center, a spare room in the Pentagon's basement, was humming with activity, fully staffed for handling both the Katrina recovery and preparations for Hurricane Rita, which would hit the Texas and Louisiana coast the next day. Fifteen people on each shift shared six computer workstations with a Special Forces Colonel, Jeff Pounding in charge.

Pentagon officials were relieved that the storm looked like it would bypass much of Texas. The state is home to Ft. Hood, the Army's largest base, and dozens of other military Installations with tens of thousands of soldiers and their families. There is also the vital defense industry—all the big contractors have facilities in Texas and a big natural disaster could potentially damage the military industrial base. Another concern was the ports of Beaumont and Galveston, which are key debarkation points for U.S. troops and goods going to Iraq and Afghanistan. "We're not just looking at Rita's impact over the next few days and weeks—we're looking at how it might impact the war effort," said Col. Pounding on Friday morning. "Getting those troops and all that equipment lined up in close sequence is a monumental task."

Some military planners say it actually helped that Rita came on the heels of Katrina. "It's actually made it easier, since we were already up and running with an emergency operation, and it's a matter of shifting resources to the west," said Col. Chris Hughes, the division chief for operations and contingency plans and the officer in charge of the Katrina/Rita op center. Now, with Rita's passing, perhaps the staff can finally get some rest.