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Mayors Urge More Troops for Disaster Response

A group of mayors from all across the United States is urging quicker use of military troops to help in the wake of natural disasters like hurricanes.

Mindful of the much criticized relief effort at all levels of government in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the mayors presented their concerns during a meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

At a news conference afterward, Long Beach, California Mayor Beverly O'Neill said their priorities include making the federal emergency relief agency, FEMA, more responsive, and expanding use of the military to help in disaster recovery.

"We feel that the federal government should allow for greater military involvement in the immediate response to such overwhelming disasters, at the very least, during the first days and weeks of response when requested by local or state organizations," said Mayor O'Neill.

Ms. O'Neill, a Democrat, is president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a bipartisan organization whose members represent more than 85 percent of the U.S. population.

President Bush said in late September that he would like to make it easier for the military to take charge after a disaster. But he also acknowledged the idea could fuel a passionate debate since the military is prohibited from carrying out domestic law enforcement duties under a law passed in 1878.

David Wallace, the Republican mayor of Sugar Land, Texas, says mayors need as much help as possible from state and federal governments because they are the first line of defense during either a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.

"And the people standing up there, whether they are mayors, whether they are fire chiefs, police chiefs, involved in EMS [emergency medical services], we truly are the first responders and when the 911 [emergency] call comes in, it does come in to the city," said Mr. Wallace.

Several mayors said they hope that the Bush administration and Congress will agree to provide local communities with more funding for so-called first responder capabilities like fire, police and emergency communications.

"To what degree is our federal government willing to assume any financial or operational responsibility for making these things happen," noted Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, and the mayor of Baltimore, Maryland. "All of the coordination in the world will not print those dollars."

This was the first meeting between the mayor's group and Secretary Chertoff. Mayor's conference president Beverly O'Neill described the exchange as generally very positive and said it focused more on responding to natural disasters like hurricanes than terrorist attacks.

Recent congressional hearings have highlighted the combined failures in the federal, state and local response to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city of New Orleans and other parts of the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast.