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The White House's pass-the-buck disaster plan

By Elizabeth Schulte | May 18, 2007 | Page 3

IN THE face of the devastating tornado in Kansas on May 4, the Bush administration's response was quick and decisive. Quickly take no responsibility and decisively blame the victim.

It took two days after the tornado--a 1.5-mile-wide, Category F-5 monster, the most powerful to hit in the U.S. in eight years--hit for National Guard troops and equipment to reach flooded areas. And when they did arrive, it was far less than what was needed--the direct result of National Guard deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.

When Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said she had been warning the federal government for months about the lack of trained personnel and equipment to deal with this kind of disaster, White House press secretary Tony Snow dismissed the governor's criticism, and claimed that she hadn't followed proper procedure to get relief.

According to the White House, Sebelius should have found gaps in needed services after the storm, and then asked for federal assistance. "As far as we know, the only thing the governor has requested are FM radios," Snow told reporters on May 8. "There have been no requests to the National Guard for heavy equipment."

The White House's had a similar pass-the-buck response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005--then, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco was the object of the White House's complaints. "We saw this after Katrina," said Donald Betts Jr., a Kansas senator in a state legislature, "and it's like history repeating itself."

Though the controversy between the White House and Sebelius disappeared from the headlines, the problem remains: There isn't enough equipment to respond immediately to disasters like the Kansas tornado.

Kansas National Guard officials told the New York Times that they are operating with 40 percent to 50 percent of their vehicles and heavy machinery.

"Ordinarily, the Guard would have about 660 Humvees and more than 30 large trucks to traverse difficult terrain and transport heavy equipment," the Times reported on May 9. "When the tornado struck, the Guard had about 350 Humvees and 15 large trucks, said Major Gen. Tod Bunting, the state's adjutant general." Bunting also said the Guard would usually have 170 medium-scale tactical vehicles used to transport people and supplies, but currently has fewer than 30.

Having trained personnel to react in the case of an emergency--especially in a state like Kansas, which is regularly hit by tornados--is another problem. In February, Sebelius warned, "The Guard cannot train on equipment they do not have."

According to a January 2007 General Accountability Office report, operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have "significantly decreased" the amount of equipment available for National Guard units not deployed overseas, while the same units are needed more often for disaster response at home.

Greensburg, Kansas, was hit hardest by the tornado, which destroyed 95 percent of the town, population 1,500. At least 11 people were killed and more were injured, with the Times reporting that it "looked as though a giant hammer had smashed" it. "There's nothing left," said the county clerk, Evelyn Grimm. It's the end of the world."

As Sebelius said, "I don't think there's any question that if you're missing trucks, Humvees and helicopters, the response is going to be slower. The real victims here will be the residents of Greensburg, because the recovery will be at a slower pace."

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