The National Guard heads into the 2006 hurricane season with more troops at home than last year but with less equipment to handle emergencies.
State-based units are short on critical equipment because guardsmen about to return from overseas assignments such as in Iraq and Afghanistan are handing off their rifles, radios and vehicles to incoming units. State officials say shortages at home of Guard equipment, such as Humvees, mean they must rely on backup assistance from neighboring states once hurricane season begins June 1.
In Louisiana, about 100 of the Guard's high-water vehicles remain abroad — even as the state continues to rebuild from Hurricane Katrina. Coastal North Carolina is missing nearly half its Humvee fleet, and Guard officials there said shortages have forced the state to pool equipment from different units into one pot of hurricane supplies. Vehicles are particularly crucial to hurricane response because they are often the only way to ferry ice and water through devastated areas.
"I think everyone this season is concerned about the capability of the National Guard and what we have," said Capt. Matt Handley, a spokesman for the National Guard of North Carolina. "We'll be ready, but hopefully we'll have a slow (hurricane) season."
The lack of equipment is not a new phenomenon, said Jack Harrison, spokesman for the National Guard Bureau
, the administrative arm of the service. Even before the terrorist attacks of 2001, non-deployed Guard units had only about 70 percent of the equipment they needed, he said.
But fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has taken an even greater toll. Last year, Guard units not on active duty had only about 34 percent of their equipment. That number has since fallen to about 26 percent, although much of the shortages have been in equipment better-suited for combat, rather than hurricane response, Harrison said.
While more equipment is staying behind, more guardsmen are coming home. As of March, there were 55,000 guardsmen in Iraq and Afghanistan, down from 80,000 a year before.
A report from the federal Government Accountability Office
(GAO) last year shows major gaps in equipment that could be used to respond to a hurricane or other disasters. In May 2005, Guard units here had only about 8 percent of the tractor trailers they were allotted and none of the Humvees with added armor, according to the GAO report.
The shortage of equipment has become a major issue for the nation's governors. In February, all 50 governors called on President Bush to re-equip the National Guard. Under the U.S. Constitution, each state's National Guard unit is controlled by the governor in time of peace but can be called up for federal duty by the president. There are two branches of the National Guard: Air and Army.
"Attention must be paid to re-equipping National Guard units with the resources they need to carry out their homeland security and domestic disaster duties, while also continuing to fine-tune their wartime mission competencies," said the letter signed by all the nation's governors and the governors of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
In 23 states, the adjutant general — or top National Guard officer in the state — also serves as the emergency management director, homeland security director, or both, according to Guard officials.
Federal lawmakers have taken notice. Congress recently allocated $900 million to re-equip the National Guard, and there are discussions under way in Washington to make the head of the National Guard Bureau - currently Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum — a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Refurbishing the National Guard also has been a key interest of a congressional task force that is reviewing the nation's citizen soldiers. The group began work in February and is expected to release a 90-day report on its progress in early June.
For now, states have learned to rely on their own, especially making use of an intra-state agreement called the Emergency Management Assistance Compact
. Under the pact, states can call on one another for help during states of emergencies without the usual red tape.
With the exception of Hawaii, all the states belong to EMAC, and the compact has been widely regarded as one of the few bright spots of last year's hurricane season. Through EMAC, about 65,000 National Guard troops and emergency responders were called in from dozens of states to help with hurricanes Katrina and Rita; only about 900 were called during the 2004 hurricane season.
EMAC is one of the main reasons both Guard and emergency officials say they can handle the 2006 hurricane season despite equipment shortages.
In Louisiana, a spokesman for the state National Guard said they have enough high-water vehicles and Humvees to handle "your typical storm." Anything worse, though, and Louisiana officials would be picking up the phones. "Even if we had every vehicle back, if we had another (Hurricane) Katrina, we would need help from other states," said Lt. Col. Pete Schneider, the deputy chief of staff for the Louisiana National Guard.