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Overwhelmed relief center in Houston is closed early

HOUSTON -- Saying they were caught off guard by the number of people in need, FEMA officials closed a relief center early yesterday after some of the hundreds of hurricane victims in line began fainting in triple-digit heat.

The Houston disaster relief center was closed midday as officials in areas hit hardest by Hurricane Rita criticized FEMA's response to the storm, with one calling for a commission to examine the emergency response.

In Washington, an audit released yesterday showed that former FEMA director Michael Brown was warned weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit that his agency's backlogged computer systems could delay supplies and put personnel at risk during an emergency.

An internal review of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's information-sharing system shows it was overwhelmed during the 2004 hurricane season. The audit was released a day after Brown vehemently defended FEMA for the government's response to Katrina, instead blaming state and local officials for poor planning and chaos during the Aug. 29 storm and subsequent flooding.

The review by Homeland Security Department acting Inspector General Richard L. Skinner examined FEMA's response to four major hurricanes and a tropical storm that hit Florida and the Gulf Coast in August and September 2004. It noted FEMA's mission during disasters as rapid response and coordinating efforts among federal, state, and local authorities.

Across southeastern Texas FEMA delivered ice, water, and packaged meals to residents who rode out last week's hurricane, which blew ashore at Sabine Pass in East Texas early Saturday.

But the agency was not ready for the roughly 1,500 people displaced by hurricanes Rita and Katrina who sought help at the Houston center when it reopened yesterday.

The center, offering help from a variety of government and private organizations, initially opened for Katrina evacuees. It closed last week when Houston was evacuated before Rita.

FEMA spokesman Justin Dombrowski said the agency closed the center for the day because of the heat and the unexpectedly large crowds. Those already in line were allowed to enter.

FEMA said it would reopen the center this morning and keep it operating into the evening seven days a week.

The agency was also making plans to deal with any similar situation, said Mike Casella, another FEMA spokesman. Frances Deculus, 65, of Beaumont got in line at 3 a.m. and emerged shortly before the center shut down. She said that all she was able to do was register for FEMA assistance, and that she will have to return to actually get any help.

''We don't know what to do. It's frustrating. We have five small children," said Deculus.

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