Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Politics of Natural Destruction

Almost four days after the Greensburg tornado, the response to that disaster--or more accurately, the ability to respond to it--has become a political football.

The bickering began just hours after the EF-5 twister leveled the small Kansas farming community. Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius said the state's response "would be slowed" because much of the National Guard's equipment is deployed to Iraq. At the time, she indicated that the Kansas Guard had only about 40% of its allotted equipment on hand, because of on-going deployments to the Middle East.

That brought an immediate response from Kansas Senator (and presidential hopeful) Sam Brownback, who observed that 88% of guard personnel were at home, and available to respond to the situation. The Pentagon and the National Guard Bureau (the military "headquarters" for Army and Air National Guard units across the nation) also offered clarification; spokesman for both DoD and the Guard Bureau indicated that the
Kansas Guard has substantial assets on hand for the Greensburg operation:

The Kansas National Guard has 88 percent of its forces available and is working quickly and aggressively to save lives and reduce suffering, Guard Bureau officials reported. More than 6,800 additional Kansas Guard troops can be tapped, if needed, as well as more than 80,000 Guardsmen from surrounding states, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters today.

Kansas Guardsmen responding to the disaster have 60 percent of their Army Guard dual-use equipment and more than 85 percent of their Air Guard equipment on hand, officials said. Whitman reported a full range of Guard equipment on hand to support the mission. The Kansas Guard has 352 Humvees, 94 Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Trucks, 24 medium and light tactical vehicles, 152 2.5-ton cargo trucks, 76 series 5-ton trucks, 13 M916 tractors, 870 trailers, 52 Heavy Equipment Transport Systems, and 30 Palletized Load System Trucks.

In terms of engineering assets, the Kansas Guard has all -- and in some cases more than, -- its authorized vehicles. This includes five road graders, 15 bulldozers, eight scoop loaders and 72 dump trucks, he said. Whitman said he was unable to report which of these assets is undergoing maintenance and might not be immediately available to provide tornado relief.

Meanwhile, the National Guard Bureau is coordinating requests for additional support through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact. This national partnership agreement paves the way for states to share resources during governor- or federally declared emergencies. “The states are poised to help one another when their own resources are overwhelmed,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

Guard Bureau spokesman Randall Noller also suggested that the equipment situation might be less dire than Sebelius indicated, noting that Kansas has not requested assistance from other states.

"The National Guard Bureau has offered liaison, operational, communications, contracting, search-and-rescue, public affairs and community relations support, and is prepared to support the governor in any way possible, Noller said."

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow also joined the fray, commenting that Kansas officials had, so far, only requested some "FM radios" to aid in the recovery effort. Snow rapped Sebelius for not following procedure to find gaps and then asking the federal government to fill them. "If you don't request it, you're not going to get it," he said.

But Sebelius, who heads the Democratic Governor's Association, is using the disaster to bash President Bush--and the Iraq War--with the assistance of the MSM and various anti-war groups. Consider these recent headlines on the Greensburg disaster:

Iraq war hampers tornado recovery (Reuters)

Kansas gov.: Tornado exposed Guard holes (AP)

Readers will note that reporters have, so far, failed to ask Governor Sebelius about those interesting numbers regarding available assets in Kansas guard units, and her (apparently) slow response in requesting outside assistance. But judging from her comments, the hands-on job of disaster response are less important than establishing the template for media coverage and public perception. By complaining about a supposed shortage of guard equipment, the governor can score some political points--and deflect potential criticism of her performance.

And a critique may be in order. In an op-ed published in today's Wichita Eagle, Kansas Senator Pat Roberts provides a little insight on how Greensburgh was declared a federal disaster area:

"...if you want to cut red tape, there is nothing like going to the person who can get that done. With my cup of Steve's coffee and my cell phone, I called the White House, and my call was transferred quickly to President Bush.

After I related what I had seen, the president promised he would declare Kansas and Greensburg eligible for federal disaster aid as soon as he received the governor's request, and he noted that Federal Emergency Management Agency officials were already notified and on the way. In our 10-minute conversation, he asked many more questions about what we had seen and the well-being of the citizens of Greensburg.

All that was left in the red-tape cutting was for the governor to request the declaration, which Gov. Kathleen Sebelius promptly did.

In other words, the same governor who was anxious to criticize the administration's response didn't bother to request a disaster declaration until Senator Roberts called the White House. Are we to assume that Ms. Sebelius lost the White House phone number, or (perhaps) her cell service doesn't include the D.C. metro area. In any case, her delay in making the request--hours after Greensburg was devastated--seems oddly reminiscent of another governor (Louisiana's Kathleen Blanco), who issued a pre-Katrina evacuation order only after urging from Mr. Bush.

In recent days, the Kansas Governor has described Greensburg residents as "victims" of the guard's equipment shortage. Based on her actions, we'd say the good people of Greensburg are being victimized by a shameless political hack, more concerned about advancing Democratic talking points than leading the tough job of disaster relief.

Such are the politics of natural destruction.

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