Obama visits ravaged Alabama; Texas governor says, 'What about us?'

Obama surveyed tornado damage in Alabama Friday, after declaring the state a disaster area. A disaster request from Texas over raging wildfires remains unanswered. Are requests often denied?

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama visits tornado damage in the Alberta neighborhood in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Friday.

With at least 300 lives lost from a massive tornado outbreak in the South, the Obama White House reacted quickly this week, declaring a federal disaster, promising federal help, and dispatching none other than the president himself to Alabama on Friday to survey the damage.

A few states away, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a states' rights proponent and frequent Obama critic, had one question for the president as his state strains to bring wildfires under control: What about us?

"You have to ask, 'Why are you taking care of Alabama and other states?' I know our letter didn't get lost in the mail," Governor Perry, a Republican, said Thursday in a radio interview.

Certainly the widespread casualties and loss of entire neighborhoods, even towns, in Alabama and six other tornado-stricken states qualify as a national emergency. In Texas, the death toll from wildfires is low, but the fires have destroyed millions of acres and hundreds of homes, making the state a prime candidate for a disaster declaration, Perry forcefully noted in an April 16 letter to Obama.

Declaring a disaster area means that the federal government – and US taxpayers – pay for 75 percent of cleanup and recovery costs.

Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) insist the president's silence on Texas has nothing to do with politics, and that Perry's request for a federal disaster declaration for 252 of the state's 254 fire-prone counties is "under review." (Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, by the way, is also a Republican.) What's more, FEMA adds, the US Forest Service is fully involved in the firefighting, and FEMA has made 20 separate smaller declarations for individual working fires.

Perry has in the past insinuated that the Obama White House is bent on punishing Texas because of its views on the 10th Amendment (reserving for states powers not granted by the US Constitution to the federal government) and his own criticisms of Obama and the federal government on issues ranging from economic stimulus packages to health-care reform. Moreover, Texas is currently suing the Environmental Protection Agency over a proposal to end the state's independent air-quality permitting program in favor of a national program.

Obama, for his part, has noted that Perry has accepted federal dollars for his state even as he criticized the US government for supplying them. "Governor Perry helped balance his budget with about $6 billion worth of federal help – which he happily took – and then started blaming the members of Congress who had offered that help," Obama said last week, referring to 2009 federal stimulus funds.

The growing dispute – "the White House versus the Republic of Texas," as one Internet commenter put it – comes as governors have increasingly asked for federal disaster declarations to cope with various crises. Both requests and declarations have been on the rise under the past three presidents. In 2009, Obama made 78 presidential disaster declarations, beating a previous record of 75 granted by President George W. Bush in 2008.

But Obama hasn't rubberstamped every request. In 2009 he denied a disaster declaration request from Perry after flooding from tropical storm Hermine and a request for federal relief from then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California after a natural gas-explosion in San Bruno. Overall, about 75 percent of disaster requests are currently granted, compared with about 30 percent before 1988.

Historically, politics seldom play a part in such declarations, Richard Sylves at the University of Delaware, an expert on presidential disaster declarations, has noted. A desire to appear responsive to citizens' needs is the main political instinct in determining whether to declare a federal disaster, he has said. Both Presidents Bush and Obama were criticized for their handling of, respectively, hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.

Meanwhile, Texas has run up a $60 million tab fighting what has become its worst wildfire season. Mr. Bush, a Texan, declared the state a disaster zone in the midst of a deadly bout of wildfires in 2008.

Ultimately, "given the severity and gravity of the wildfires, I wouldn't be surprised if there's effort under way in D.C. to expedite [Perry's request]," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, in Austin.

But for now the presidential focus is on Alabama, which Obama toured with first lady Michelle Obama on Friday. Speaking to reporters, Obama quoted Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox as telling him, "'What's amazing, when something like this happens, folks forget their petty differences, differences of religion and race. All that fades away when we're confronted with the awesome power of nature.'"

"Hopefully," Obama added in his own words, "that spirit continues and grows."

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