WASHINGTON– Federal and State response forces have begun what Texas Governor Rick Perry is calling the largest search and rescue ever in his state today as more than 100,000 residents are estimated to have ignored Hurricane Ike evacuation warnings. Ike reached the Texas shores early this morning as a category 2 storm with upwards of 110 mph winds, flooding thousands of homes and leaving millions without power. The hurricane was later downgraded to a tropical storm, and as it continues to weakens, first responders are moving in.

More than 3,300 active-duty military members are prepared for search and rescue operations, said Mike Kucharek, spokesman for U.S. Army Northern Command.

Also, there are about 7,500 Texas National Guardsmen activated and providing assistance in Galveston, Houston, Lufkin and Orange County, which are some of the hardest hit areas.

Emergency response agencies are staging their logistics area for commodities support and distribution efforts from Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas, Kucharek said. More than 40 distribution points are set up across eastern Texas and Louisiana too to provide food, water, ice and medical support.

Response teams have more than 100 helicopters, 88 high-water vehicles and 21 short-raft boats available for rescue missions, he added.

Around 50 of those helicopters, from National Guard assets, are already airborne and conducting rescue operations, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said during a press briefing from Washington today.

“We’re particularly focused on those areas hit with storm surge,” Chertoff said. But he added that even in the areas where flooding is not as significant, people should still remain cautious. “The most dangerous period of the storm is what occurs after the storm has moved on,” he continued.

Chertoff cautioned power outages, fallen trees and debris, down power lines and other types of hazards across the effected areas in Texas and Louisiana.

“People should exercise extreme caution as they get out and about, so we don’t have injuries and loss of life going forward from this point on,” he said.

In Texas, particularly the Galveston area, a large amount of state, Coast Guard and Defense Department helicopters are conducting recovery efforts. The most recent reports state more than 120 people have been rescued. Authorities in Louisiana are tracking 179 rescues already along with one dog rescue, Chertoff said.

Texas estimates 2.2 million people fled their homes, while Louisiana estimates 130,000. Though many of the evacuees are in hotels and shelters, officials are urging them not to return until authorities announce areas are safe, he said.

President Bush today declared 29 counties in Texas as major disaster areas, which Chertoff said clears the way for federal funding for individuals and local community efforts for debris removal. This will relieve a significant burden as local and state authorities move forward with recovery operations, he said.

The storm is projected to continue its path through north Texas into Arkansas with driving rain, strong winds and the possibility of tornadoes, and is still considered dangerous, Chertoff said.

“It may not be as dramatic as the scenes you saw on television right at the coast,” he said, “but exercising prudence for everybody in the path of this storm is very strongly recommended, so we can minimize the loss of life as much as we can.”

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