A day before a scheduled presidential visit to tornado-ravaged Greensburg, the White House fired back at Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on Tuesday for her complaints that the Kansas National Guard is underequipped for dealing with disaster because of the amount of its equipment tied up in the Iraq war.
Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, joined White House press secretary Tony Snow in criticizing the Democratic governor's comments.
But Sebelius had her supporters as well, including Democratic presidential candidate and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Kansas state Sen. Donald Betts, D-Wichita, and national groups opposed to the war.
Sebelius opened the war of words on Monday when she said that the response to the Greensburg disaster would be hampered by the amount of Kansas National Guard equipment that has been deployed overseas.
According to a spokesman for the Guard, the state doesn't have about half the tractor-trailer trucks it ordinarily would for moving heavy equipment from armories in eastern Kansas to the western Kansas disaster site. Also, the guard has only about 30 of its usual complement of 170 "medium tactical vehicles," high clearance cab-over trucks that are used to transport equipment, personnel and supplies.
The Bush administration has been sensitive about criticism of the way it responds to natural disasters since taking heavy political fire for a botched response to the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.
On Tuesday, Snow criticized Sebelius, saying the federal government was prepared to supply what Kansas needed but that the governor had not requested aid beyond "FM radios."
He also appeared to lecture the governor about how to seek help from the government during the emergency: "If you don't request it, you're not going to get it."
Later, he corrected himself and said "the state has requested a mobile command center, an urban search and rescue task force, a mobile office building, 40 two-way radios, and coordination calls between Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma, to determine if they need extra Black Hawks (helicopters)."
Brownback said he had been assured by local officials and the commander of the Kansas Guard that the Guard had adequate equipment to respond to the emergency.
"I think what we need to do is to focus on what we need here now, and not draw a broader political question in," he said. "We've got a disaster, and we need to all pull together to get everything we need from the state and the federal (government) for the local need."
Sebelius wasn't backing down, though.
"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," she said in a written statement issued by her office.
But she said she "would not back down" on her efforts to get the federal government to replace Guard equipment that's been shipped overseas.
"The equipment shortage will likely slow long-term efforts to recover and rebuild in Greensburg," she said. "We can only hope that we not have another significant natural disaster in Kansas. That would put our Guard, and the people of Kansas, in a real bind."
In the governor's corner was Obama, who said that Illinois is in about the same shape as Kansas when it comes to equipment for handling domestic disasters.
"In light of the tragic events in Greensburg, Kansas, I'm writing to ask you that the federal government ensure that the National Guard has the resources necessary to respond to disasters here at home," he said in a letter to the president. "Our National Guard should never be overstretched to the point where we allow our homeland security and emergency response capabilities to erode."
Betts participated in a news conference call arranged by the National Security Network, Americans Against Escalation in Iraq and the Progressive States Network.
He said he felt Snow's comments about Sebelius were "out of line" and that the federal response should have been in Greensburg either the night of, or morning after, the tornado.
"This is like a repeat of Katrina," he said.
Betts recently proposed a legislative resolution opposing expansion of the Kansas Guard's deployments in Iraq.
"We're spending $2 billion a week on the war to build another country while we're neglecting our own nation," he said.
Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527.