The grim images have become sadly familiar. Flattened homes, destroyed buildings—and a president picking his way through the rubble to show his concern for the disaster victims. Today it was Greensburg, Kans., where a deadly tornado left at least 11 dead as it leveled most of the town last Friday.
Arriving in Greensburg under dark, overcast skies, President Bush got his first look at the tornado damage during a helicopter tour aboard Marine One. Afterward, he took to the city by foot, viewing up close obliterated houses and businesses, including a John Deere dealership cluttered by smashed-up tractors and combines. He was joined on his tour by Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and other state and local officials. "I am struck by the character of the people here," Bush told reporters on the scene. "They are willing to do what it takes to rebuild. America is blessed to have such people." He vowed to "get whatever help is appropriate here … as quickly as possible."
It was a brief nod to the political storm that has overtaken the catastrophe in Greensburg. Since Friday it has seemed a little like déjà vu in Washington: The Bush White House sparring with a Democratic governor over the emergency response to a devastating natural disaster.
But this wasn't Hurricane Katrina. On Tuesday, nearly two years after the storm that thrashed the Gulf Coast and savaged Bush's approval ratings, the White House got caught up in a game of finger-pointing over the handling of the Greensburg tornado.
It all started when Sebelius, a Democrat, told reporters that tornado recovery efforts would likely be slowed because much of the state's National Guard equipment remains in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I don't think there is any question that if you are missing trucks, Humvees and helicopters that the response is going to be slower," Sebelius told reporters Monday. "The real victims here will be the residents of Greensburg because the recovery will be at a slower pace."
Those comments touched a nerve at the White House, which is still trying to live down its botched response to Katrina. In the first briefing of the day on Tuesday, Press Secretary Tony Snow rebutted Sebelius's complaints, telling reporters that if there was a slow response, it was her fault for not asking the Feds for help. He insisted the state had not requested heavy equipment. The only item on their wish list, Snow said, had been FM radios, which the government eagerly provided. "If you don't request it, you're not going to get it," Snow said.
But later that afternoon, Snow backtracked, admitting the state had requested and the federal government had provided, among other things, a mobile command center and extra Black Hawk helicopters. He accused the press corps of "trying to pick a fight." Yet Snow still continued to get in digs at Sebelius, implying that the White House had struggled to reach her because she'd been out of the state when the storm happened. Four days after the storm, it was the first time the White House voiced such communication struggles. "It was difficult," Snow said of trying to get in touch with Sebelius. "It was clearly a priority to get things moving."
Snow told reporters that Fran Townsend, Bush's homeland-security adviser, had phoned Sebelius on Tuesday morning and asked her "three times" if she had the equipment she needed—a phone call Townsend later recounted on CNN. "I called her today … to be sure that we had the same impression, that she was satisfied that we met the response, and that's the case," Townsend said.
Yet back in Kansas, Sebelius did some clarifying of her own. "Let me be clear," the governor said in a written statement. "With the equipment we have, the men and woman of the Kansas National Guard have the initial response to the Greensburg tornado under control … [But] we have a looming crisis on our hands when it comes to National Guard equipment in Iraq and our needs at home."
She warned that the equipment shortages would likely slow "long-term efforts" to recover and rebuild in Greensburg, but expressed worries about future storms. "We can only hope that we do not have another significant natural disaster in Kansas," Sebelius said. "That would put our guard … in a real bind." While thanking the White House for its help, Sebelius vowed not to drop the issue of replacing National Guard equipment. "I will not back down," she said.
It's not just memories of Katrina that has the White House worried about such bad press. With polls showing support for the war reaching new lows, there are growing worries among administration officials about how the public will view the effects of the war back home.
In small local newspapers all over the country, the deaths of U.S. troops in Iraq already command front-page coverage. But it's the growing list of other sacrifices the public might link to the war which the White House worries could send support for the war tumbling even further, things like higher gas prices or the inability to respond quickly to storm disasters like Greensburg or wildfires in the West.
In Kansas, the bad press coverage has already begun for the White House. "Until the killer tornado hit," the Kansas City Star opined on Wednesday. "Sgt. Jessie Davila was Greenburg's sole casualty of the war."
In the aftermath of Katrina, the White House was unnerved by criticism that a depleted National Guard played a role in the administration's slow response. Perhaps prepared for such bashing, the White House eagerly trotted out the equipment available to Sebelius to aid her state's recovery efforts: "83,000 National Guard units in the region, 99 bulldozers, 61 loaders, 246 dump trucks, 59 graders, 228 heavy expandable mobility tactical trucks, 2,243 2.5 and 5-ton trucks, 70 palatalized load systems," Snow said Tuesday, though he later admitted that some of those resources were available through FEMA and other public entities, not through the guard.
But what the White House can't dispute is that it's not just Sebelius who has voiced concern about guard equipment shortages. Earlier this year, all 50 governors signed a letter to Bush urging the administration to take quick action to replace guard resources lost or left behind in Iraq. Likewise, it was the talk of Bush's one-on-one meetings with the governors, during his annual dinner with the nation's chief of executives at the White House.
Two recent studies, including one from the Government Accountability Office, have called the guard unprepared when it comes to dealing with major crises, both foreign and domestic. According to the GAO, of the 300 types of equipment needed in natural disasters, the guard has thousands fewer than it did before the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. In March, the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, an independent panel installed by Congress, declared the guard was on the verge of collapse, describing its equipment readiness "unacceptable."
Administration officials insist that Bush understands the problem and is eager to deal with it. They cite his proposal to expand the military, a plan that would take pressure off of the National Guard. But that doesn't directly deal with the replacement of lost equipment, and with another hurricane season on the horizon, the problem will likely only continue.
Still the White House view is that now is not the time to talk about it. Touring Bay Street in Greensburg with Sebelius at his side, Bush made clear that his visit to Kansas on Wednesday was not about fighting over "appropriate aid." "My mission," Bush said, "is to lift people's spirits as best I possibly can … and to let people know that while there was a dark day in the past, there's brighter days ahead."