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Bush wants pentagon to lead in disasters

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Sept. 25, 2005, 11:33PM

Bush looks to Pentagon to take lead in disasters
If Congress likes idea, local officials would lose some of their powers

Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

BATON ROUGE - President Bush indicated Sunday that he may ask Congress to put the Pentagon in charge of the response to domestic disasters such as the two recent hurricanes a change that could take authority from the hands of governors and local officials.

Bush discussed the idea in general terms as prominent members of Congress said on public affairs TV shows that the responses to Katrina and Rita will be investigated and that a new approach may be needed to coordinate rescue and recovery efforts.

At a briefing at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, military leaders who are members of Joint Task Force-Rita told the president that a national plan for disaster response would avert the "train wreck" of future Hurricane Katrinas.

Army Maj. Gen. John White told Bush that chaos, combined with good intentions, led to problems in responding to Katrina that could be averted with better oversight.

"That was a train wreck we saw in New Orleans," White said. "But if we can have a national plan that would address the search and rescue at this magnitude, (that) is what we're out to try to do."

Assessing the response
A tired-looking Bush, who traveled to U.S. Northern Command in Colorado and to Austin, San Antonio and Baton Rouge this weekend to assess storm response, said it was exactly the message he wanted to take back to Washington.

"Part of the reason I've come down here, and part of the reason I went to Northcom, was to better understand how the federal government can plan and surge equipment to mitigate natural disasters," Bush said.

In the case of a terrorist attack, the Defense Department would automatically serve as the lead authority in overseeing a response, Bush said. But he added that the Pentagon also could take a top role in a large-scale natural disaster.

"Is there a natural disaster which of a certain size, that would then enable the Defense Department to become the lead agency in coordinating and leading the response effort?" Bush asked rhetorically. "That's going to be a very important consideration for Congress to think about."

Such a move would have significant implications for local authorities in storm-prone states such as Texas, Florida and Louisiana.

Decreasing states' rights
Currently, state governors are responsible for disaster preparedness and response, including calling in their National Guard units.

Governors can request assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. If federal armed forces are brought in to help, they do so in support of FEMA and their activities are restricted by law.

Putting the planning and oversight in the Pentagon's hands would effectively federalize disaster response, possibly eroding states' legal rights, which Bush and many other conservatives have worked to strengthen.

Still, White said better coordination at the federal level would head off situations such as the arrival of five helicopters at one place to rescue the same person in New Orleans.

"That's the sort of simplistic thing we'd like to avoid, and we're not maximizing the use of our forces to best efficiency," White said.

Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz., asked on ABC's This Week if the U.S. has the resources for the military to take the lead in disaster recovery.

"We're capable of doing it, but have no doubt that there is a strain on the Guard in particular because of their requirements to be deployed to Iraq," said the senator, a Vietnam War veteran.

McCain also expressed concern over the projected surge in government spending in the wake of the two storms, saying the federal budget deficit may reach more than $500 billion this year.

Gaps in preparedness
Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican and chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is conducting hearings to examine the government recovery effort after Katrina.

"You would think four years after 9/11, with billions of dollars spent to improve our emergency preparedness, that the response to Katrina would be far crisper, far better coordinated and not marred by failures at all levels of government," Collins said on CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the senior Democrat on the Homeland and Government Affairs Committee, called for creation of an independent Sept. 11-type commission to examine the Katrina response and the nation's general state of emergency preparedness.

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