People in south Texas began to prepare for possible evacuations with Hurricane Dean approaching the Gulf of Mexico.
"If I was a Texas resident, particularly along the southeast coast, I would make sure I was ready," R. David Paulison, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told reporters. "This is not a time to be complacent."
The Category 4 storm is on a course for nothern Mexico, but could shift and hit the region around Brownsville, Texas, along the state's southeastern coast, Paulison said.
In that area, he said there are 400,000 people, many in substandard housing, who lack their own transportation.
Already in place to help with a possible evacuation are 1,300 buses in San Antonio as well as more than 130 fixed-wing aircraft and several hundred helicopters, he said.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said the first hurricane of the Atlantic season was projected to reach the most dangerous hurricane classification, Category 5, with winds of 160 mph, before crashing into the Mexican coastline near Cancun on Monday night or Tuesday. The Mexican mainland or Texas could be hit later.
"We're going to continue to operate as if this storm is moving into the United States," Paulison said after a video conference with the various federal agencies preparing to respond if necessary.
He said U.S. officials already have spoken with the Mexican government about expedited processing by U.S. customs and border agencies should Mexican residents temporarily need to cross the border.
"We're going to protect people regardless of what country they are from," the FEMA chief said.
Paulison took over in 2006 after his predecessor, Michael Brown, was criticized for the government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005.
"Katrina was a wake-up call for all of us in emergency management and also for the federal government. We have to play together as a team, have to respond as the federal government, not as individual agencies," Paulison said.
"I do not see this country allowing another Katrina-type event to happen."
A decision to leave ahead of any signs of Dean was tough for many in the coastal city of Galveston, where residents remember the disastrous evacuation before Hurricane Rita in 2005. State officials say they have worked out the kinks in the system, but many Galveston residents are not ready to believe them.
"I've talked to a lot of people about this," said resident Chuck Lee. "They'd rather die in their homes than die in their cars on some highway."
The Rita evacuation quickly turned into a disaster, as motorists from the coast ran into residents fleeing Houston, clogging evacuation routes for miles in sweltering heat. Gas stations closed after running out of fuel and supplies and motorists sat stranded and helpless for hours.
President George W. Bush signed a pre-landfall emergency disaster declaration for Texas, allowing federal equipment and supplies to be moved in now, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. Gov. Rick Perry has asked for the declaration late Saturday morning and Bush approved it at his ranch in Crawford.