Bush Struggles with Disaster Relief Administration Cannot Meet Florida's Expectations after Hurricane

Article excerpt

PRESIDENT Bush has mobilized the federal government to lead what may be the largest recovery effort in modern United States history in the wake of Hurricane Andrew.

But the effort is a scramble to catch up with public expectations that federal agencies were not prepared to meet when the hurricane hit shore.

In an election year, for a president burdened with a reputation for not caring enough about the problems of ordinary Americans, meeting those public expectations is imperative.

In the two weeks since Andrew landed, a parade of Cabinet secretaries and agency heads have trooped through the storm-stricken areas. Federal assistance ranges from supplying Army MREs (meals ready-to-eat) to suspending home mortgage payments.

The president has promised that the federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost of rebuilding south Florida's public infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and fire stations - a $5 billion to $15 billion commitment.

But the ad hoc, disorganized nature of the relief and recovery effort is readily apparent.

Confused local officials in south Florida, wondering how to get federal disaster assistance and lacking a single voice of authority to guide them, have been calling their counterparts in South Carolina - who coped with the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo three years ago - looking for direction.

Hugo was the nation's most expensive hurricane disaster until Andrew, which has surpassed Hugo several times over. But both disasters have seen many of the same problems with federal involvement.

"It is not evident that they learned a lesson," says Bob Cates, South Carolina's disaster manager for Hugo.

If South Carolinians see a sadly familiar disorder in the hurricane response, they also see vastly more presidential attention being lavished on south Florida than they got.

"I'm flat-out amazed," says Steve Mullins, assistant managing editor of the Charleston Post and Courier, of one story about Bush administration responsiveness in south Florida. "There is a huge difference, an enormous difference in response, and people here see it very clearly."

Roughly two days had passed after Andrew's Florida landfall before two things registered at the White House.

First, officials at all levels began to realize the massive scope of the damage. Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, for example, had delayed requesting US Army assistance until the fourth day, hoping the National Guard could handle the task. …