The White House fought back Tuesday against criticism from Kansas’ governor that National Guard deployments to Iraq are slowing the response to last week’s devastating tornado.
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said the fault was Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’.
In a spat reminiscent of White House finger-pointing at Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco after the federal government’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina, 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.
The enormous twister – the most powerful to hit the United States in eight years – ripped through Greensburg, Kansas, on Friday, razing nearly all of the farming town with winds estimated at 205 mph.
President Bush will travel to the area on Wednesday. Sebelius plans at that time to raise her contention that disaster preparedness and response are hampered because so many state National Guard units have been sent to the Middle East.
“I don’t think there is any question if you are missing trucks, Humvees and helicopters that the response is going to be slower,” she said Monday. “The real victims here will be the residents of Greensburg, because the recovery will be at a slower pace.”
Sebelius said about half the state’s National Guard trucks are in Iraq, equipment that would be helpful in removing debris, and that the state is also missing a number of well-trained personnel.
“The issue for the National Guard is the same wherever you go in the country. Stuff that we would have borrowed is gone,” she said.
Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, the state’s adjutant general, said the Kansas National Guard was equipped at only about 40 percent of its required levels, down from the 60 percent that it had at the start of the war.
Even as Snow insisted he wasn’t trying to get into a political tussle with the Democratic governor, he aggressively defended the administration’s performance.
“As far as we know, the only thing the governor has requested are FM radios,” Snow said. “There have been no requests to the National Guard for heavy equipment.”
He went on to say that the president’s disaster declaration for Kansas, issued Sunday, immediately made funding available to get heavy equipment through private contractors.
“We are eager to provide what Kansas needs,” Snow said. “But again there are also – you also have to go through the process of making the request first.”
Snow said “I’m not aware of any prior complaints,” and said it would be “standard procedure” when a tornado hits for a state to consult its disaster plan and start making assessments about where the federal government needed to step in.
“We are certainly going to try to clean up any misunderstandings about how this works,” Snow said.
Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback also disputed Sebelius after visiting the destroyed town on Monday. Brownback, a Republican candidate for president, said local officials and the Kansas National Guard commander all told him they have the resources needed to respond.
“That’s what really got me, is her saying that,” Brownback said of Sebelius.
But Sebelius said she asked the Pentagon in December to replenish lost resources. She also said she spoke about the issue at great length with Bush over a year ago, in January 2006, when they rode together from Topeka, Kan., to a lecture in Manhattan.
“What the Defense Department said then and continues to say is that states will get about 90 percent of what they had,” Sebelius said. “Meanwhile, it doesn’t get any better. I’m at a loss.”
The White House is sensitive to the president’s response to disasters after the Katrina debacle. Snow said Bush was waiting until Wednesday to visit the area “to make sure that you do not get in the way, especially of rescue operations.”