America the Unready

[Update: Now it’s the White House saying that Kathleen Sebelius’s statements are just the whining of another woman Democratic governor. More below.]

Much of the nation is one storm away from catastrophe, and the National Guard is not ready to respond. Nancy A. Youssef of McClatchy Newspapers writes that

With much of their equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan, state National Guards face profound shortages in responding to natural disasters, particularly as they get ready for the hurricane season, which begins June 1.

The Guard has been shipping gear to hurricane-prone states in an effort to ease concerns, but a large disaster affecting several states would tax the Guard’s ability to respond, according to National Guard officials and government reports. Some deficiencies aren’t correctable. The Texas National Guard’s helicopters, for example, are in Iraq and can’t be replaced easily.

This sudden concern for disaster readiness was triggered when Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said that the Kansas guard could not respond to the recent tornado devastation because so many of its troops and equipment were in Iraq.

Guard and other government agencies have been warning of the problem for months.

“Most of the units in the Army and Air National Guard are under-equipped for the jobs and the missions that they have to perform” domestically, Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard bureau, told Congress last month. “Can we do the job? Yes, we can. But the lack of equipment (means it takes) longer to do that job, and lost time translates into lost lives, and those lost lives are American lives.” [emphasis added]

Righties — supporters of the Iraq War — can come unglued over an exploding backpack and homemade cherry bombs, but they can’t grasp the importance of disaster response.

A Government Accountability Office report in January found that of 300 types of equipment needed in natural disasters, the Guard had fewer in all categories than it did in 2001, before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Some of the equipment is unavailable for domestic disasters, the GAO found, including radios and dump trucks. Only 2 percent of the diesel generators needed are available, the study found.

The GAO report estimated that Guard units in the United States have only 50 percent of the equipment they’d need in the event of a disaster. A study by the National Guard Association of the United States pegs the percentage at 40 percent, according to John Goheen, the group’s spokesman.

And to achieve the 40 percent, the Guard had to count some of the guardsmen’s privately owned vehicles.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Guard units had access to 75 percent of their equipment needs, according to the GAO. But Guard units deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have been leaving their equipment behind when they return to the United States so that other units can use it.

Much of the equipment that remains in the United States is rundown. Blum estimated that it would cost $40 billion to bring the National Guard to 80 percent readiness.

Note that the Iraq War supplement bill Bush just vetoed was for $124.2 billion. The “pork” that so vexed the President included money “for training, operations, repair of equipment, purchases of equipment, and other expenses related to improving the readiness” of the non-deployed National Guard.

There’s a program to move Guard and active-duty Army equipment from other states to hurricane-prone areas, thereby taking equipment away from tornado-prone, earthquake-prone, and terrorist-prone areas. But even relatively weak hurricanes could be devastating to the Hurricane Katrina survivors still living in flimsy FEMA trailers.

In today’s New York Times, Clark Kent Ervin explains what America needs to do to prepare itself for another major terrorist attack, which likely would involve more than exploding backpacks and homemade cherry bombs. Ervin is a former Inspector General of the Homeland Security Department who was purged by the White House for actually doing his job rather than focus on providing butt cover for Bush Administration incompetence. In today’s op ed, Mr. Ervin writes,

Perhaps another strike on the country is unlikely, but I very much doubt it. From everything we know, Al Qaeda is as determined as ever to attack us at home, and it remains as capable as ever of doing so. While many of its operatives have been killed or captured since 9/11, the supply of young people who are willing and even eager to attack Americans seems limitless.

Our disastrous misadventure in Iraq has only increased that desire. Al Qaeda has reconstituted itself in Pakistan and is trying to reclaim Afghanistan. It is only marginally harder for terrorists to enter the United States now than it was before 9/11, and once they’re inside our borders the potential targets are infinite. Many of those targets are more secure today, but not to the degree they should be

Ervin follows up with a to-do list: better airport and mass transit security, better inspection of cargo at seaports, better border patrol, better intelligence, better preparedness. We’ve been talking about some of these items since 9/11 — hell, I bet if I looked I’d find them in the Hart-Rudman recommendations — and they still aren’t done. One of the last items is

Ensure that, in the event of an attack, there is a clear chain of command among the federal, state and local governments; interoperable communications among first responders; supplies of food, water and medicine; and clear, workable evacuation plans.

Have Chertoff and crew done a dadblamed thing along these lines since Katrina? Not that I’ve heard.

Update: The Associated Press reports (Thanks Joan16) —

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.


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, Kansas, 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.”

Sebelius isn’t backing down.

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.

Updates: From FEBRUARY 2006 — “Bush Policies Are Weakening National Guard, Governors Say.” Released FEBRUARY 2007 — “Sebelius: Guard equipment shortage leaves state vulnerable.”