Stateline Story

Govs: We're in Charge of Disasters

Hoping to fend off a federal takeover in emergency leadership, a number of the nation's governors are banding together to ensure state authorities remain in control during catastrophic disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

Carrying the message to Congress, Govs. Jeb Bush (R) of Florida, Janet Napolitano (D) of Arizona and Rick Perry (R) of Texas testified at a hearing Wednesday (Oct. 19) that states already have the specialized resources to deal with emergencies within their borders.

"Let Texans run Texas," Perry told the House Committee on Homeland Security .

The hearings come less than a week after the National Governors Association , led by Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), issued a statement declaring the NGA's opposition tosuggestions after the slow response to Katrina that states transfer some authority to federal officials in emergencies.

Governors from Alabama, Delaware, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana and West Virginia also have been quoted as decrying any attempt to give up the power to oversee evacuations, rescues and recoveries.

There has been little push legislatively for federal officials to assume this responsibility. But in the aftermath of Katrina, which left local, state and federal authorities wondering who was in charge, lawmakers have re-examined power-sharing among these three levels of government.

At issue is everything from disaster preparation to on-the-ground management to long-term recovery. 

A survey by USA Today published on Oct. 3 showed only two of 38 governors who responded -- Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) -- were willing to consider President Bush's suggestion that Congress might want to make the Pentagon the top authority in certain disasters.

At the congressional hearing, the governors discussed ways Congress could help state officials deal with a disaster, short of preempting state authority. Perry said the federal government, especially the military, should act as the cavalry, providing manpower, money and equipment when states get overloaded.

"The military is not a fire department, a police department or a hospital," Perry said. "Leave first response to the first-responders."

Gov. Bush agreed, adding that federal emergency officials needed to streamline recovery after a disaster, especially in the areas of housing and debris removal.

Napolitano took a somewhat different tack, emphasizing Arizona's difficulty in handling the large number of illegal immigrants coming from Mexico. Rather than taking on a new and bigger role in emergencies such as hurricanes, federal officials should focus on doing their job of protecting the border, the Arizona governor said.

"We have lost operational control of the border in Arizona," she said.

Gov. Bush, too, focused on problems in his own state. In the hours before the hearing, Hurricane Wilma intensified to a Category 5 on a track estimated to hit Florida as early as Saturday, Oct. 22.

Bush used the latest storm to demonstrate how states can adequately handle their own disasters. He told the committee plans already were under way to evacuate tourists, open emergency centers and shore up critical supplies. Florida, and other states, know how best to manage their emergencies, he said.

"If this responsibility is federalized, it will be as much of a disaster as any natural disaster," Gov. Bush said.