Hurricane Politics

September 01, 1992

What if? What if President Bush had declared Operation Florida Storm when he flew to Dade County a week ago today to inspect the damage Hurricane Andrew had wrought? What if he had immediately dispatched 20,000 troops, announced open-ended federal emergency relief and focused all his presidential powers on combating one of the greatest natural disasters in the nation's history?

Would Florida Gov. Lawson Chiles have complained he was being bypassed? Would local disaster officials have had their noses out of joint? Would Bill Clinton be calling for an investigation of the government's disaster-response system?

The answers are no and no and no. The president would be riding high, and not just in a fairly solid Republican state he has to take to win re-election Nov. 3. More dramatic action would have gone a long way to dispel the impression that Mr. Bush is far more taken with foreign than domestic problems.

When things go sour for politicians, however, they seem to go sour in bunches. The president did not pull out all stops right away because no one in high places appeared to have realized the extent to which southern Florida had been pulverized and, more important, because neither the law nor the federal bureaucracy is presently positioned to cope with such a disaster.

Instead, thousands of victims who had lost their homes, their possessions and were desperate for food, water and clothing were treated to an Alphonse and Gaston routine. The Pentagon professes it was ready but it couldn't act until the White House asked it to. But the president's emergency point man, Transportation Secretary Andrew Card, said he couldn't act until Governor Chiles asked him to. Mr. Chiles had asked for aid early but hadn't made his request specific enough to trigger the required federal response.

So it wasn't until Dade County officials started screaming on national television Thursday that the army finally moved in. Perhaps if Andrew had been good enough to drop bombs instead of 155-mile-an-hour winds, officialdom would have gotten its wake-up call sooner.

As to the politics of it all, Mr. Bush missed an opportunity and probably took a hit. He can now dispense all kinds of federal largess, but he can hardly overcome Governor Clinton's claim that the president was unfairly blaming fellow Democrat Chiles when he was doing no such thing (even if his surrogates were). Nor can Mr. Bush put politics outside the eye of the hurricane when his own press spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, predicts the calamity will create "a beneficial [political] fallout."

Americans have a right to demand a thorough shakeup, one that perhaps should give the Pentagon clear responsibility for disaster relief now that its Cold War responsibilities have diminished. Many of the skills needed to combat nature at its worst could be used in dealing with regional conflicts where humankind is at its worst.

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