Monday, September 26, 2005

Bush mulls lead role for military in disasters


Bush mulls lead role for military in disasters

By Caren Bohan

BATON ROUGE, Louisiana (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush said on Sunday that Congress ought to consider giving the U.S. military the lead role in responding to natural disasters, as he heard one general describe the Hurricane Katrina rescue effort as a "train wreck."

Bush spent the last three days monitoring Hurricane Rita's high winds and flooding from military bases and emergency centers in Colorado, Texas and Louisiana. The president, whose poll numbers have slumped to new lows, was widely criticized over the slow federal response to Katrina.

His meetings with military brass and disaster coordinators were aimed at showing a hands-on approach to Rita -- in contrast to when Katrina struck on August 29 and he was in Arizona and California pitching his Medicare prescription drug benefit.

But in his sixth Gulf Coast tour, Bush steered clear of visiting devastated areas or meeting with displaced victims, saying he did not want to disrupt the relief effort.

"The last thing we want to do is get in the way of the ongoing immediate response efforts. That's something we have never done before and we had no intention of doing on this initial trip to the region," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Maj. Gen. John White, who briefed Bush at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, urged him to create a national plan for large-scale disasters like Katrina.

Illustrating the disorganization in Katrina's wake, White recounted an incident in New Orleans in which five helicopters showed up at the same time to rescue one person.

"That's the sort of simplistic thing we'd like to avoid," White told Bush. "That was a train wreck that we saw in New Orleans."


Bush said Congress would have to consider under what circumstance the Department of Defense should become the lead agency in coordinating and responding to a disaster.

"Clearly, in the case of a terrorist attack, that would be the case. But is there a natural disaster ... of a certain size that would then enable the Defense Department to become the lead agency in coordinating and leading the response effort? That's going to be a very important consideration for Congress to think about," Bush said.

McClellan said Bush's goal was to make sure "there's a very clear line of authority" in the event of another major catastrophe, whether it is another storm like Katrina or an avian flu outbreak.

"You need to mobilize assets and resources and logistics and communications very quickly to help stabilize or contain the situation," McClellan said. "The organization, in the president's mind, that has the capability to do that is the Department of Defense."

McClellan said Bush has already discussed some of these issues with the secretary of Homeland Security and some top military leaders, and that the next step was to hold talks with congressional leaders.

McClellan acknowledged the proposal faced legal hurdles, and that a major issue would be determining what type of disaster would "trigger" a shift in authority to the Pentagon.

Putting the military in the lead role would sideline the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA, which now works with local and state officials to coordinate disaster response.

Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, expressed reticence about that approach on CNN's "Late Edition."

Landrieu said the military has a strong role to play "but so do our governors and our local elected officials."

"I mean we do have a democracy and a citizenship that has elected mayors, county commissioners and governors particularly. I'm not sure the governors association or all the mayors in America would be willing to step aside," she said.


In Baton Rouge, Bush said at a Federal Emergency Management Agency hub that he had had an upbeat report from the Army Corps of Engineers on work to contain the latest flooding in New Orleans.

"I would say it's an optimistic appraisal in the sense that work has started now and they can start draining that part of the city again," Bush said.

Rita, while dealing a punishing blow to an already stricken region, appears to have been far less destructive than Katrina, which killed more than 1,000 people and left New Orleans in ruins. Bush has praised the federal response to Rita and taken responsibility for flaws in the Katrina recovery.

Bush headed back to Washington after the Baton Rouge stop but may return to the Gulf Coast as early as Tuesday.

(Additional reporting by Adam Entous)