The tornado that tore apart Greensburg, Kan., dramatized what could happen when a state's National Guard equipment is thousands of miles away in Iraq. But it now seems Kansas' problems in rushing aid to the disaster scene weren't as acute as Gov. Kathleen Sebelius first implied while standing in the wreckage of the small southwestern Kansas town.
"About 50 percent of our trucks are gone. Our front-loaders are gone. We're missing Humvees that move people in and out, and we can't borrow them from other states because their equipment is gone," the Democratic governor told NBC's Today Show on Monday at the scene of the tornado that killed 11.
Sebelius' comments about missing vital equipment set off a firestorm, leading to a spat between the governor and the White House, a front-page story
in The New York Times, and a press release by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who assailed President Bush for vetoing an Iraq war funding bill that included $1 billion to make up equipment shortfalls for the Army National Guard.
While missing trucks might have slowed movement of equipment and troops to Greensburg by some hours, Sebelius (D) now says her biggest worries about the problem of lacking Guard equipment is a longer-term concern, particularly in case of a more widespread emergency or multiple disasters occurring at the same time.
"Let me be clear: With the equipment we have, the men and women of the Kansas National Guard have the initial response to the Greensburg tornado under control," Sebelius said in a statement released Tuesday night.
Nonetheless, she reaffirmed that the issue she raised is a real concern: "We have a looming crisis on our hands when it comes to National Guard equipment in Iraq and our needs here at home. The equipment shortage will likely slow long-term efforts to recover and rebuild in Greensburg. We can only hope that we not have another significant natural disaster in Kansas."
Kansas has received some outside aid: radios from Kentucky and staff help from the National Guard Bureau. From the federal government the state received a mobile command center, a mobile office building, a search-and-rescue team, and coordination of extra Black Hawk helicopters. In her statement Sebelius said she appreciated the President's "help, quick response and concern in dealing with the tornado damage in Greensburg." Bush visited the stricken city Wednesday (May 9).
If a state lacks the equipment or manpower to handle a disaster on its own, it can fall back on the Emergency Management Assistance Compact
(EMAC), which helps states request aid from other states.
EMAC is currently signed onto by every state except California. During Hurricane Katrina, EMAC helped send more than 43,000 National Guard troops from more than 40 states to the Gulf Coast.
An EMAC spokeswoman said as of Wednesday afternoon, Kansas requested public-assistance officers, personnel that the state has received, and individual-assistance officers to deal with the tornado - but no heavy equipment.
States often rely on each other for help. In January, Oklahoma guardsmen flew Chinook helicopters to feed hay to starving cattle in snowy Colorado because Colorado's units were in Iraq. Currently, Arkansas is borrowing two Black Hawk helicopters from other states because its own are also in Iraq.
But in a conference call sponsored by the National Security Network, the Progressive States Network and Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, New Mexico's adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Melvyn Montano, said compacts like EMAC "are practically nullified because all states have people and equipment in the sandbox," he said, referring to Iraq and Afghanistan. "If you have four or five (states) around that can help you, where are they going to tap their equipment from if they've all been deployed?"
In the days following Sebelius' comments, the Democratic governors of Arkansas and Maryland echoed her concern about equipment shortages.
However, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (R) said his state was equipped to deal with a hurricane, and spokesmen for several states' National Guard units said despite the missing equipment, they could handle most emergencies.
Three states that recently faced natural disasters - a tornado in Alabama, wildfires in Florida, and the nor'easter storm that raged through New York and the Eastern seaboard - found that a shortage of equipment didn't stop their Guard troops from responding, according to those units' spokesmen.
"We talk about the shortfalls in equipment in the National Guard, but that is simply a factor we take into account. As soldiers, we take the limitations that we're given and just operate in that environment," said Lt. Col. Rich Goldenberg of New York's Guard.
North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley (D), the lead governor on National Guard issues for the National Governors Association, said Wednesday that in recent months several states have "gotten a significant portion (of equipment) back so that we are able to respond to natural disasters, so long as they're not too large."
Nationwide, governors only have access to 37 percent of aviation equipment and 47 percent of their transport in case of emergency, according to the National Guard Bureau. "That don't mean you can't get the job done, but you can't get it done as quickly," Easley told Stateline.org .
While aid to Greensburg didn't founder because of a shortage of National Guard equipment, the issue remains a major concern voiced by governors since soon after the start of the war in Iraq in 2003. The state-based units of citizen soldiers have been called to active duty for lengthier tours overseas than in any previous war. In addition, their weapons and vehicles are often left behind in Iraq when they return home, leaving units short of equipment to train or to respond to a state emergency, such as wildfires, floods or terrorist threats.
Easley said one of the biggest problems with the equipment shortage is that guardsmen cannot train for war in their home state, resulting in longer deployments as troops are forced to follow the equipment for training.
In January 2006, Sebelius sent a letter to then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asking the Pentagon to increase efforts to replace equipment left in Iraq. A month later she joined all governors in calling on President Bush to re-equip the Guard.
A March report
by the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, appointed to advise Congress, found that 88 percent of Army National Guard units aren't ready to be deployed because of equipment shortfalls. A January report
by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, found that most states, including Kansas, have available only about half the necessary dual-use equipment, which can be used in both the war and on the home front, such as trucks and Humvees.
However, even before the wars, National Guard units only had access to 65 percent to 79 percent of their required equipment, the GAO report said.
The money Congress allotted for the Guard is still hung up in the standoff between the White House and Congress over a military funding bill in which Democrats are seeking to tie money for troops to deadlines for removing American soldiers from Iraq.
In a telephone interview, Kansas' adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, reiterated Sebelius' assertion that although the state didn't need much help with the Greensburg tornado, another natural disaster would have severely stretched Kansas' resources.
Bunting said that in addition to cleaning up Greensburg, the state also is watching its northeast corner for possible flooding on the Missouri River. Kansas already has talked to neighboring Arkansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma about getting their help should a major flood develop. "We can generally only do one big storm at a time," Bunting said.