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Sunday, September 25, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bush told U.S. needs national plan to coordinate search and rescue efforts after natural disaster, attack

The Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. — Military officials told President Bush today that the U.S. needs a national plan to coordinate search and rescue efforts following natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

Bush said he is interested in whether the Defense Department should take charge in massive national disasters.

"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?" Bush asked. "That's going to be a very important consideration for Congress to think about."

Bush got an update about the federal hurricane response from military leaders at Randolph Air Force Base. He heard from Lt. Gen. Robert Clark, joint military task force commander for Hurricane Rita, and Maj. Gen. John White, a task force member, who described search and rescue operations after Hurricane Katrina as a "train wreck."

With Katrina, "we knew the coordination piece was a problem," White said. He said better coordination is needed to prevent five helicopters, for example, from showing up to rescue the same individual. "With Rita, we had the benefit of time. We may not have that time in an earthquake scenario or similar incident," White said.

"With a national plan, we'll have a quick jump-start and an opportunity to save more people," White said.

Speaking of the helicopter example, White said, "That's the sort of simplistic thing we'd like to avoid." He added, "We're not maximizing the use of forces to the best efficiency. Certainly that was a train wreck that we saw in New Orleans."

Bush thanked White for his recommendations.

"This is precisely the kind of information I'll take back to Washington to help all of us understand how to do a better job," the president said.

Later, Bush spent a little more than an hour getting a private briefing in a FEMA joint field operations office that was set up in an empty department store building.

He urged people not to be too eager to return to their homes.

"It's important that there be an orderly process," Bush said. "It's important that there be an assessment of infrastructure."

Bush's briefings came as residents along the Texas and Louisiana coasts began clearing up debris and power crews worked to restore power to more than 1 million customers in four states.

Rita, which hit the Gulf Coast early Saturday, toppled trees, sparked fires and swamped Louisiana shoreline towns with a 15-foot storm surge that required daring boat and helicopter rescues of hundreds of people.

Still, the devastation was less severe than that caused by Hurricane Katrina when it made landfall on Aug. 29.

After the briefing, Bush attended a worship service at a chapel on the base.

Bush's appearance was clearly a surprise to the base congregation. The chaplain, Col. David Schroeder, said, "We usually make new people stand up and introduce themselves." Everyone laughed at that, and then he announced the president. Bush stood along with the entire, clapping congregation.

Before returning to Washington, Bush was visiting Baton Rogue, La. The White House has not released details of his scheduled.

On Saturday, he made a stop in Austin, Texas, and at the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado.

"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 Sunday.

"It's precisely the kind of information that I'll take back to Washington to help all of us understand how we can do a better job in coordinating federal, state and local response."

Under the existing relationship, a state's governor is chiefly responsible for disaster preparedness and response. 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, through Northern Command, set up as part of a military reorganization after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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