WASHINGTON—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.
The potential impact of the equipment shortages became apparent over the weekend when a tornado devastated Greensburg, Kan. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said Monday that the state's National Guard couldn't respond as quickly as it should have because much of its equipment is overseas. About 300 Kansas National Guardsmen have been sent to Greensburg.
"Fifty percent of our trucks are gone. Our front loaders are gone. We are missing Humvees that move people," Sebelius told NBC's "Today" show. "We can't borrow them from other states because their equipment is gone. It's a huge issue for states across the country to respond to disasters like this."
That problem is likely to worsen in the event of a major hurricane, which generally affects a much larger area than a tornado does. Guard officials in hurricane-prone states say they're ready, but only if they can get help from other states. That will slow critical response times, emergency managers say.
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."
Sebelius, a Democrat, first warned of her state's equipment shortage in February, when she complained in Washington that Kansas Guard units had left $117 million worth of equipment overseas. "The president and Congress need to step up to the plate and give our Guard members the support they deserve," she said then.
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.
Even to achieve that number, Goheen said, some Guard units have had to count privately owned vehicles that would be made available under lease agreements in the event of a disaster.
Finding such substitutes "has become urgent," Goheen said.
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.
"Now we find (ourselves) with our shelf stockage so low that it's at an unacceptable level, in my judgment, here at home, and it needs to be addressed," Blum testified.
Hurricane-prone states might be in a better position than some other states because of a program, directed by Army Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, to move equipment there from other states or from the active-duty Army.
In interviews with McClatchy Newspapers, National Guard representatives in Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi and Texas said they had at least 50 percent of the equipment they needed. Only North Carolina officials said they expected to have all the equipment they needed by June 1.
Those hurricane-prone states also benefit because most of their Guard units aren't currently in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Alabama is in the weakest position, with 4,000 of its 11,400 Air and Army National Guard deployed, or about to be, overseas. Total deployments for the other states total only about 2,000, state National Guard officers said.
"We have adequate numbers, but it will be a challenge," said Lt. Col. Robert Horton, an Alabama Guard spokesman.
Several hurricane experts are predicting this year to be more active than usual. Two of the most notable experts, Philip J. Klotzbach and William M. Gray, estimate that there will be seven hurricanes, three of them Category 3 or higher.
But the Guard is likely to be called up even for weaker storms, especially in Mississippi and Louisiana, where victims of Hurricane Katrina are still living in approximately 85,000 trailers that could be toppled by winds as low as 50 miles an hour. Minimum hurricane winds are 74 miles per hour.
The lack of equipment to move those people could create serious delays.
"If another Katrina hit, it would be really, really bad," said retired Gen. Tim Powell of the Mississippi National Guard. "There is going to be a huge evacuation, even if it's a Category 1 or 2 storm. They will have to get out of those trailers."
The January GAO report said that the Defense Department had taken steps to address the equipment shortages, but that it wasn't certain that those steps could reverse the Guard's lack of readiness for large-scale disasters.
"Until the Army makes decisions as to what equipment non-deployed Army National Guard forces can expect to have on hand, it will remain unclear whether the National Guard has the equipment it needs to successfully perform its domestic missions, including responding to large-scale, multi-state events," the report said.