Govs to Bush: Relief our job

Few support military taking charge in disaster response

By Bill Nichols and Richard Benedetto

WASHINGTON — There is almost no support among the nation's governors for President Bush's suggestion that the Pentagon could take the lead in responding to catastrophic natural disasters, a USA TODAY survey has found.

Of the 38 governors who responded to a request for reaction to Bush's comments, only two backed the idea: Republicans Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota.

Half the state chief executives said they were opposed or had reservations, including Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother. Eleven wanted more details before taking a position, and 12 did not respond.

Most governors who opposed the suggestion said they would resist any effort by Washington to usurp state control of disaster relief, even in a devastating event like Hurricane Katrina, in which more than 1,100 people died.

"Whether a governor is a Republican or Democrat, I would expect the response would be, ‘Hell no,' " said Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican whose state was pummeled by Katrina, said some federal help might be necessary. "But we don't need them coming in and running things," Barbour spokesman Pete Smith said.

Pawlenty said federal control in an "ultra-catastrophe" could bring quicker and more effective relief.

Romney said Bush's suggestion is worth a look. "A fair question to ask is, ‘If the federal government is paying the bill, should not it also be in command?' " he said.

Bush mentioned the idea after criticism of the sluggish federal response to Katrina. "Is there a circumstance in which the Department of Defense becomes the lead agency?" Bush asked Sept. 25. "That's going to be a very important consideration for Congress to think about."

Such a change could require congressional action. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, enacted post-Civil War, bars the military from domestic law enforcement duties unless there is a threat to authority. Most disaster relief is not police work, but actions such as making arrests or stopping traffic could overstep the existing law.

Some disaster-relief specialists back the idea. "The military must coordinate the first response in Category 3, 4 and certainly 5 hurricanes," said Thomas Panuzio, a former top Federal Emergency Management Agency official.

Many governors fear such an arrangement would add unneeded bureaucracy and raise the volatile issue of ceding control of state law enforcement to the U.S. military.

"I would never abdicate, nor would I expect any other governor to abdicate, the responsibility to protect the people of my state," said West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat.

Jeb Bush, a Republican, believes that if the "state and local response is a complete failure, there might be a way for the federal government to step in. But a takeover is not appropriate," said spokesman Russell Schweiss.

"People in Washington, D.C., can yap all they want," said Montana's Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer, "but they're not going to undermine the constitution of the state of Montana."