Kansas Tornado Renews Debate on Guard at War

New York Times

CHICAGO, May 8 — For months, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas and other governors have warned that their state National Guards are ill-prepared for the next local disaster, be it a tornado, a flash flood or a terrorist’s threat, because of large deployments of their soldiers and equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then, last Friday night, a deadly tornado all but cleared the small town of Greensburg off the Kansas map. With 80 square blocks of the small farming town destroyed, Ms. Sebelius said her fears had come true: The emergency response was too slow, she said, and there was only one reason.

“As you travel around Greensburg, you’ll see that city and county trucks have been destroyed,” Ms. Sebelius, a Democrat, said Monday. “The National Guard is one of our first responders. They don’t have the equipment they need to come in, and it just makes it that much slower.”

For nearly two days after the storm, there was an unmistakable emptiness in Greensburg, a lack of heavy machinery and an army of responders. By Sunday afternoon, more than a day and a half after the tornado, only about half of the Guard troops who would ultimately respond were in place.

It was not until Sunday night that significant numbers of military vehicles started to arrive, many streaming in a long caravan from Wichita about 100 miles away.

Ms. Sebelius’s comments about the slow response prompted a debate with the White House on Tuesday, which initially said the fault rested with her. Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, said the governor should have followed procedure by finding gaps after the storm hit and asking the federal government to fill them — but did not.

“If you don’t request it, you’re not going to get it,” Mr. Snow told reporters on Tuesday morning.

The debate was reminiscent of the Bush administration’s skirmishes with Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana, also a Democrat, after Hurricane Katrina. But after an angry flurry of words, both sides seemed to back down a bit later Tuesday.

Ms. Sebelius said she now had enough equipment and personnel to deal with the problems in Greensburg, and the White House acknowledged that the governor had requested several items that the federal government supplied, including a mobile command center, a mobile office building, an urban search and rescue team, and coordination of extra Black Hawk helicopters.

Nonetheless, the governor and officials in other states again expressed concern that the problem could occur again as the stretched National Guard system struggled to respond to disasters at home while also fighting overseas.

As State Senator Donald Betts Jr., Democrat of Wichita, put it: “We should have had National Guard troops there right after the tornado hit, securing the place, pulling up debris, to make sure that if there was still life, people could have been saved. The response time was too slow, and it’s becoming a trend. We saw this after Katrina, and it’s like history repeating itself.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which came under strong criticism after Hurricane Katrina, seemed to respond more quickly in Kansas. Several of the agency’s mobile disaster recovery centers are in Greensburg assisting residents, and the agency said it had moved in 15,000 gallons of water and 21,000 ready-to-eat meals, enough to feed 10,000 people.

State officials said the problem with the National Guard’s response had more to do with equipment than personnel.

In Kansas, the National Guard is operating with 40 percent to 50 percent of its vehicles and heavy machinery, local Guard officials said. Ordinarily, the Guard would have about 660 Humvees and more than 30 large trucks to traverse difficult terrain and transport heavy equipment. When the tornado struck, the Guard had about 350 Humvees and 15 large trucks, said Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, the state’s adjutant general. The Guard would also usually have 170 medium-scale tactical vehicles used to transport people and supplies — but now it has fewer than 30, he said. On the other hand, General Bunting said, it had more cargo trucks than it needed.

The issue is not confined to Kansas.

In Ohio, the National Guard is short of night vision goggles and M-4 rifles, said a Guard spokesman, Dr. Mark Wayda. “If we had a tornado hit a small town, we would be fine,” Dr. Wayda said. “If we had a much larger event, that would become a problem.”

The California National Guard is similarly concerned about a catastrophic event. “Our issue is that we are shortchanged when it comes to equipment,” said Col. Jon Siepmann, a spokesman for the Guard in California. “We have gone from a strategic reserve to a globally deployable force, and yet our equipment resources have been largely the same levels since before the war.”

In Arkansas, Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, echoed the concerns of Ms. Sebelius. “We have the same problem,” Mr. Beebe said. “We have had a significant decrease in equipment traditionally afforded our National Guard, and it’s occasioned by the fact that it’s been sent to the Middle East and Iraq.”

He added: “Our first and foremost consideration is to guarantee that our soldiers have the resources, including equipment, to do the job and protect themselves. Having said that, my preference would be for the federal government to provide that equipment and not strip the state’s resources, which could adversely impact the state’s mission in times of crisis, which is what happened in Kansas.”

Last year, all 50 governors signed a letter to President Bush asking for the immediate re-equipping of Guard units sent overseas. But officials in several states, including Kentucky, Minnesota and Texas, said Tuesday that they were not facing equipment shortages.

National Guard units overseas are often assigned engineering missions, and the skills and equipment — bulldozers and trucks, for example — are also what might be required to deal with a natural disaster at home.

White House officials said that the Kansas National Guard had at its disposal in the Midwest and the Plains states, everything it needed. By Mr. Snow’s count, that included 83,000 National Guard soldiers; 99 bulldozers; 61 loaders; 246 dump trucks and 59 graders.

“There’s a lot of stuff available,” Mr. Snow said. “So, again, I think this is one where the equipment was available and everybody was moving as rapidly as possible.”

In Congressional testimony, senior National Guard officials have said that since Sept. 11 units under their command had equipment shortages as forces deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Responding to concerns that the National Guard would not have sufficient personnel or equipment to respond to natural disasters, Guard leaders and state officials developed plans to ensure that if a state is in short supply of people or gear when a hurricane or tornado strikes, it can borrow from other states.

But borrowing does not solve every problem, state officials said, and coordination can take time. The destruction from Hurricane Katrina ultimately required the help of 50,000 troops — and they came from all 50 states.

Training is another issue. At a Washington news conference in February, Ms. Sebelius said, “The Guard cannot train on equipment they do not have.” She added later: “And in a state like Kansas, where tornados, floods, blizzards and wildfires can seemingly happen all at once, we need our Guardsmen to be as prepared as possible.”

Two recent reports have raised questions about Guard preparedness. An independent military assessment council, the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, released a report in March that stated: “In particular, the equipment readiness of the Army National Guard is unacceptable and has reduced the capability of the United States to respond to current and additional major contingencies, foreign and domestic.”

Another report, released in January by the Government Accountability Office, concluded that the ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have “significantly decreased” the amount of equipment available for National Guard units not deployed overseas, while the same units face an increasing number of threats at home.

Late Tuesday, in a statement, Ms. Sebelius repeated her message:

“I have said for nearly two years, and will continue to say, that we have a looming crisis on our hands when it comes to National Guard equipment in Iraq and our needs here at home.”

Susan Saulny reported from Chicago, and Jim Rutenberg from Washington. Reporting was contributed by Maureen Balleza, Steve Barnes, Malcolm Gay, Christopher Maag, Adam Nossiter, Libby Sander, Thom Shanker and Jennifer Steinhauer.

This entry was posted in Veterans for Common Sense News. Bookmark the permalink.