Q&A: Gov. Sebelius on Disaster Relief

As residents of Greensburg, Kan., struggle to recover from a 200-mph tornado that flattened their community last Friday, killing 11, the state's governor, Kathleen Sebelius, touched off a political storm with the Bush administration, warning that the demands of the Iraq War had handicapped the ability of the Kansas National Guard to respond to the disaster. "We have a looming crisis on our hands," she said. This is not the first time that Sebelius, a Democrat, has complained that the war has diverted troops and equipment needed in the event of natural disasters, such as the one that struck Kansas last week. NEWSWEEK's Karen Breslau spoke by phone with Gov. Sebelius after she finished touring the disaster site with President Bush on Wednesday. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You and other governors have been warning for the past couple of years that your National Guard troops are stretched too thin. Was this tragedy in Greensburg your nightmare come true?
Kathleen Sebelius:
It is in some sense. We have the assets we need to deal with this situation here on Day 5. What's very worrying is that right after this happened we had torrential rains and some flooding. Our adjutant general told me was that if we have to choose in Topeka, if we had to deploy National Guard and equipment [and choose] between a flood or tornado cleanup, we'd be in trouble. It's a huge concern, and one governors have been talking about for three years. The troops go to Iraq and take equipment, and when they return, they leave the equipment there. There has been no replacement strategy. The Pentagon says the plan is to replace 90 percent of equipment over the next six years. I don't think there is a governor in the country who thinks that is a safe and sound strategy for managing security at home. I've been in lots of meetings on this issue and it doesn't matter if it's Republicans or Democrats. One of the key spokesmen for this issue was the secretary of the Interior, Dirk Kempthorne [formerly the Republican governor of Idaho]. He made this case on behalf of the governors over and over again.

Did you address this concern today with the president when he came to Greensburg to see the damage?
I did not today. Today was about the people of Greensburg, comforting them. There were a lot of tears. Every building is gone. We thanked him for coming. There's no doubt that the president being here really lifted spirits. We have the first funeral tomorrow.

But I did have the opportunity to talk with him about this not long ago, when he was in Kansas to deliver the Landon lecture [a lecture series at Kansas State University, named after Alf Landon, the 1936 GOP presidential nominee]. He wasn't able to fly into [the speech location], so at the last minute I got into the car with him and our two senators for the drive from Topeka and used it as a great lobbying opportunity. I told him we needed the equipment replaced, and he assured me there were additional resources in the budget. I kept saying afterwards I'm sure he wished the door would open and I would fall out.

Did you have the sense that the president got what you were saying? Did he share your view of the problem facing governors?
I'm not sure. My sense is that while this is a real Department of Defense issue—they supply and equip the guards—this has not been their highest priority. What the president acknowledged was that there was money in the budget, but again, their [the Pentagon's] response to the governors has been pretty consistent: they have a six-year plan. I'm not sure that anyone feels from a commander in chief point of view, with these troops we call on to be first responders, that this is a comforting response. We want our troops going into a war zone to have the equipment they need. But if they are asked to do two jobs—to be first responders and be troops on the battlefield—a request that's never been there in history, then we need a different strategy.

The National Guard would not be ready at home?
Our surrounding states don't have the resources to lend.

Because their stuff is also in Iraq?
Right. God forbid we have another attack. We know we'll have natural disasters—wildfires in the West, hurricanes, tornadoes. This is our second FEMA disaster in Kansas this year. We had a huge ice storm in January, which required using the guard to open roads and rescue people, and bring in food to livestock. We are in the beginning of our tornado season.

There was some pretty strong language from the White House this week. At one point, spokesman Tony Snow seemed to chide you for not asking for the right equipment from the federal government. "If you don't request it, you're not going to get it," he said. How would you grade the federal response to the Greensburg disaster?
We are thankful for the prompt federal response, we are thankful for the assets. This is Day 5 and we have what we need. The White House has taken lessons of previous disasters seriously and heard the outcry about timely response. This FEMA response has been terrific. We had the FEMA director, we had a disaster declaration. It's a different situation than what we've seen in other cases.

Among others supporting your remarks this week were an antiwar group and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Your home-state senator, Sam Brownback, who's running for the Republican presidential nomination, called your remarks about National Guard preparedness "unfortunate." Did you expect the political tornado?
That's too bad. It's this partisan divide that is unfortunate. I can assure you my comments as a commander in chief [of the guard in Kansas] have been made over and over again by Republican and Democratic governors. This is not an issue that's new, unfortunately. What does happen, is that as war continues, the reserve equipment supply is depleted each month as new troops are sent overseas. This maxes us out. If we have another incident where we have to deploy guard troops and equipment, then I have to make a choice.