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White House rebuts Kansas Guard shortage

The Bush administration and Kansas' governor started Tuesday pointing fingers at each other over the response to last week's devastating tornado. By lunchtime, both sides had backed down.
Severe Weather Tornado
A stray goat forages in downtown Greensburg, Kan., where a massive tornado, an enhanced F-5 with wind estimated at 205 mph, tore through the town Friday destroying 95 per cent of the buildings and leaving 10 people dead.Charlie Riedel / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Bush administration and Kansas' governor started Tuesday pointing fingers at each other over the response to last week's devastating tornado. By lunchtime, both sides had backed down.

With President Bush set to travel to now-razed Greensburg, Kansas, on Wednesday to view the destruction wrought by Friday's 205 mph twister, the Democratic governor said she planned to address with Bush her contention that National Guard deployments to Iraq hampered the disaster response.

"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 Mon-day. "The real victims here will be the residents of Greensburg, because the recovery will be at a slower pace."

Sebelius said that with other states facing similar limitations, "stuff that we would have borrowed is gone."

White House response
White House press secretary Tony Snow fought back aggressively.

In an approach reminiscent of the blame game played by the White House with another Democratic governor, Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana, after the federal government's botched response to Hurricane Katrina, Snow at first said the fault for any slow response would be Sebelius'. He said she should have followed procedure by finding gaps and then asking the federal government to fill them - but didn't.

"If you don't request it, you're not going to get it," he told reporters Tuesday morning.

Snow said no one had asked for heavy equipment. "As far as we know, the only thing the governor has requested are FM radios," the spokesman said.

Well, not exactly.

At Snow's second, midday briefing with reporters, he offered that it turned out that the state had requested several items that the federal government supplied - those radios, and also a mobile command center and a mobile office building, an urban search and rescue team and coordination on extra Blackhawk helicopters.

Snow recounted a phone conversation on Tuesday between Sebelius and Bush's White House-based homeland security adviser, Fran Townsend, in which the governor said she was pleased with the federal performance on the tornado and had everything she needed.

Kansas governor clarification
About the same time, Sebelius was doing her own backpedal from across the country.

Her spokeswoman, Nicole Corcoran, said the governor didn't mean to imply that the state was ill-equipped to deal with this storm. Sebelius' comments about National Guard equipment were, instead, meant as a warning about the state's inability to handle additional disasters, such as another tornado or severe flooding, she said.

"We are doing absolutely fine right now," Corcoran said. "What the governor is talking about is down the road."

Sebelius has long spoken out about the fallout from sending National Guard units and equipment overseas. She says the war in Iraq is damaging domestic disaster readiness, because needed manpower is drained from states and the Pentagon is not replacing equipment at a fast enough rate.

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 when he was in Kansas in January 2006, and that Bush assured her that the money for replacements was in his budget.

Snow said the president recognizes there is a need to relieve pressure on the National Guard, and that it is one of the main reasons Bush has called for expanding the overall size of the military. But he also said that, regardless, there still are sizable numbers of personnel and equipment around the country ready to respond to disasters.

"If you take a look at the way the National Guard units are dispersed, you still have considerable strength in each state," he said.