Politics & Policy

Mining the Disaster

Is the governor of Kansas using the rubble of Greensburg to build a national campaign?

Politicizing natural disasters is pretty heartless. Just ask Ray Nagin. Or ask the homeless citizens of Greensburg, Kansas. Their homes, their businesses, and their lives have been torn apart by bad luck and worse weather. The last thing they needed was to be turned into a political football. But today, as George Bush and Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius meet on an empty field that used to be a town, that’s exactly what the people of Greensburg have become.

#ad#It’s been less than a week since a mammoth tornado tore apart the small, south-central Kansas hamlet that, until 9:45 last Friday night, was home to 1,500 people. The story that first went around the world was a testament to the self-reliance and resiliency of Kansans. (NRO’s coverage is here.) Greensburg, it was clear, was no New Orleans. When the clouds lifted, local residents started digging out. Their neighbors were there in minutes: Local towns and villages descended on the small town and got to work because, as any Kansan will tell you, that’s how you get ’er done. People get together and get to work.

Greensburg was not a huge metropolis. Three thousand yards would have taken you from one end of town to the other, easily. So, using whatever was at hand, in a few hours the streets were open for emergency vehicles — which, in small-town parlance, means not only ambulances and fire trucks from other small towns, but also an armada of pick-ups, tractors, dozers, loaders, and heavy trucks owned by practically everyone within a 50-mile radius. After all, this is a part of the world where most people commute to work on a big machine that beeps when it goes backwards.

The next day, the state’s Republican U.S. Senator, Pat Roberts, along with two local congressmen, were on the scene, surveying the destruction and reporting back on what they were seeing. On Sunday evening, two full days after the disaster, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius made her appearance.

During that two-day period, two things happened that changed the story from one of small-town heroism to one about the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. In Greensburg, outside civilian help was kept out by emergency management teams — perhaps accounting for the “unmistakable emptiness in Greensburg, a lack of heavy machinery and an army of responders” reported this morning by the New York Times.

Kansas legislators started getting complaining phone calls from area residents and from people who wanted to help, but were being kept away, even as Sebelius was telling reporters, “As you travel around Greensburg, you’ll see the city and county trucks have been destroyed.” (Not that the village of Greensburg had a lot of trucks to begin with.)

Melvin Neufeld, the Speaker of the Kansas house — and also a farmer from Ingalls, another small town about an hour northwest of Greensburg — explained what he thought accounted for that “unmistakable emptiness” reported by the Times: “We had people there, people who had been doing the work and other people who wanted to be included. That’s how we do things here. We don’t wait for the government. We just get the job done. But all those people were kept out.”

Now, one might argue that, despite the way Midwesterners have always successfully responded to these calamities in the past, there are acceptable, safety-inspired reasons for keeping civilians out of a civil-emergency area. Less certain is the reasoning behind the other thing that happened during that two-day period of “unmistakable emptiness.” While Roberts and the congressmen were on the scene, and while people were waiting to get back in to reclaim whatever they could of their broken lives, the governor’s office in Topeka was busy changing the story.

As the Topeka Capital-Journal’s Ric Anderson writes this morning, “Sebelius works without a carefully crafted game plan about as often as Ashton Kutcher finishes a novel. She’s calculating and cautious, which is a big part of why she’s won two terms as governor in a Republican state.” It took a couple of days, but finally Sebelius released a statement claiming that relief efforts in Greensburg were being hampered by the absence of state National Guard equipment. It had been taken to fight the war in Iraq.

This complaint is a common one made by Democratic governors who want to put their oar into the rising anti-war tide. Sebelius is a star in that galaxy; she’s an Emily’s List liberal, and like almost all of Kansas’s governors, she’s a product of the state’s eastern precincts, where Democrats and “moderate” Republicans have long used their power to defeat conservatives who are often popular in the state’s rural areas. Moreover, she’s not from Kansas — she’s the daughter of former Ohio governor John Gilligan, a Democrat — and, according to Neufeld and others, she has aspirations to the vice-presidential slot on the Democrats’ national ticket. Her critics charge that she used the disaster in Greensburg as a chance to take center stage to help fuel her political ambitions.

If so, it worked. By Monday morning, the Greensburg story had a new hook, one that played much more comfortably in the national media. It wasn’t about those resilient Kansans, after all. It was about Bush and Iraq. When the A.M. talk shows went on the air, Sebelius was ready. “[Having Guard equipment in Iraq] is a huge issue,” she told Fox’s Steve Doocy. “We’re missing Humvees, frontloaders, and dumptrucks.” And, she added, she couldn’t ask for help from neighboring states, because their stuff was in Iraq, too. Her closer: “We need those assets back in the United States.” Suddenly, Kansas was on the Huffington Post, and by what Kansans call “dinner time” — lunch to us — this was how Reuters was covering Greensburg:

A shortage of trucks, helicopters and other equipment — all sent to the war in Iraq — has hampered recovery in a U.S. town obliterated by a tornado, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said on Monday.


“There is no doubt at all that this will slow down and hamper the recovery,” Sebelius, a Democrat, told Reuters in Kansas, where officials said the statewide death toll had risen to 12 on Monday.


“Not having this equipment in place all over the state is a huge handicap,” Sebelius said.

The press has run with this story, of course. The Katrina effect — exploiting a natural disaster for political gain — is irresistible, and for Harry Reid and anyone else who needs a good attack bite, Greensburg will do. By Tuesday, according to the AP, Barack Obama was blaming Bush and Iraq for the death of 10,000 people in Greensburg. Today, it’s on the front page of the New York Times, right where Sebelius apparently wanted it to be: “The emergency response was too slow,” the Times reports her saying, “and there was only one reason.”

But, say Kansans like Neufeld, there are troubling questions that should be asked. First, if the governor thought there was going to be a delay, or if she felt she needed more equipment, why didn’t she ask for it Saturday?

“All she had to do was ask,” the Defense Department’s Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke told me. “We can’t make that decision on our own and start imposing people and equipment on our own. The state has to ask.”

In addition to thousands of available Guard personnel, Krenke said, there’s enough heavy equipment available to Sebelius to turn tiny Greensburg into a heavy-equipment parking lot — including more than 350 Humvees, hundreds of trucks, tractors, trailers, and other pieces of heavy machinery — along with thousands more sitting parked in neighboring states.

“It’s all there,” Krenke said. “The equipment and people are available and a process is in place for getting it. But they haven’t chosen to use it.” The adjutant-general of the Kansas National Guard is working with Washington, Krenke said. “He should be advising her of all this.” The adjutant-general’s press officer didn’t respond to a request for a comment.

But the governor’s office did. Last night I asked, if equipment is the problem, and the equipment is there for the asking, how does the war in Iraq “slow down and hamper the recovery” effort in Greensburg? And why hadn’t the governor taken those two days to ask for help, if she thought she needed it? Her spokesman first disputed that she had meant Greensburg, specifically, but when pressed, he said simply, “We’ll get back to you.” An hour or so later, the governor’s office released a statement backing down a little. It wasn’t about getting help quickly to little Greensburg, after all.

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. I have said for nearly two years, and will continue to say, that we have a looming crisis on our hands when it comes to National Guard equipment in Iraq and our needs here at home.

So if it wasn’t about trucks in Iraq hampering “recovery” in Greensburg, and if it wasn’t about the delay in response time, what is the governor’s point, exactly? “This is one hundred percent about politics,” Neufeld said. “It has nothing to do with the people of Greensburg.”

In Greensburg itself, a “slow” relief effort certainly isn’t quite what people are seeing. “I’m very impressed,” Deborah Factor, one of the few homeowners in Greensburg to still have a home, told me by phone yesterday. “There are Guardsmen everywhere — picking up, cleaning up, shoveling stuff. And there’s food everywhere. I have not found one single person from Greensburg with a complaint. We’re grieving our losses, but most of us are grateful for friends and family and glad to be alive.”

Factor didn’t want to cast a political stone — “we’ve got other things on our minds,” she said. Instead, she simply described National Guardsmen out on the high school football field clearing it of tree branches and FEMA people working in the streets, asking townspeople how they can be of help. “I’m just amazed at how quickly everybody — local, state and national — have been with this.”

I talked to several other area residents who were unsure why Sebelius had used Greensburg as an excuse to attack the White House. Two state employees spoke to me on condition of anonymity. “Our governor is using this incident to take cheap shots at the war in Iraq,” said one.

The other was more puzzled. “I don’t know why she didn’t ask for help if she needed it,” he said. “That’s her job, isn’t it?”

Denis Boyles — Dennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...