Politics & Policy

Spinning a Twister

Two storms struck a tiny town in Kansas last month. One rages on.

It’s been a month since a gigantic tornado touched down and blew tiny Greensburg, Kansas, off the map. The disaster struck at 9:45 P.M. on May 4, a Friday night, the dark abyss of the week’s news cycle. When U.S. Senator Pat Roberts and two Republican congressmen arrived on the scene the next afternoon, they discovered a small army of volunteers already at work, led by local men like Dennis McKinney, a conservative Democrat and the minority leader of the Kansas house. For those who were paying attention that weekend, the early news out of Greensburg was the inspiring story of how Kansas courage — a potent mixture of faith, family, friendship, hard work, and especially Midwestern self-reliance — was triumphing in the face of a huge natural disaster. (NRO’s first report is here.)

Creating a Political Storm

Three days later, and just in time for Monday’s morning news programs, the governor of Kansas, liberal Democrat Kathleen Sebelius, was on the scene explaining that, because some of the state National Guard’s equipment was in Iraq instead of in Kansas, “The real victims here will be the residents of Greensburg because the recovery will be at a slower pace.”

Very few of the residents of Greensburg were around when Sebelius said this. She was talking mostly to reporters, for whom the belief that sending National Guard assets to Iraq and Afghanistan puts people at risk in the U.S. is now accepted, if also utterly unconfirmed, wisdom. Governors, especially Democratic ones, repeat this charge all the time, since it neatly marries populism to anti-Bush sentiment — a marriage that certainly needs no shotgun these days. So the remark passed quickly, seamlessly into print and over the airwaves without anyone pointing out that the residents of Greensburg were not victims because of an alleged administration screw up, but because a tornado had just demolished their homes.

The effects of the twister were indisputable; all reporters had to do was look around. Greensburg looked like this and this. But most of them missed that part of the story. They were focusing on what was supposed to be the real source of Greensburg’s victimization — that “slower pace” of recovery, those missing Humvees and dumptrucks sent to help Bush fight his crazy war. Yet, even for Sebelius, that “slower pace” part was hard to spot because, unlike the tornado, it simply didn’t exist — something the governor’s office admitted to the AP and others the next day. Greensburg’s recovery was going “absolutely fine,” her press secretary, Nicole Corcoran, said. Well, heck…as they say in Kansas. Maybe former FEMA director James Lee Witt was right back in ’96 when he told a congressional panel that “disasters are very political events.”

Where Was the Governor?

For Sebelius, however, the political event she staged in Greensburg was very nearly a disaster. Many Kansans — including, as we reported here, some of the state’s legislative leaders — were peeved at the governor’s blatant and embarrassing grandstanding at the expense of people who had lost everything. They suspected Sebelius of grabbing for headlines in an effort to further her political ambitions.

Worse, some were demanding to know where, exactly, the governor of Kansas had been between the time the storm struck Greensburg and the time she showed up in there to talk about the National Guard’s “slow response” to the disaster. It seemed like a legitimate question for the local media to ask; nevertheless, I could find nobody in the statehouse press corps who had raised the question in print — or in person, for that matter. So politically sensitive is the press in Kansas that even asking a mildly awkward question of their governor is seen as a right-wing witch-hunt conducted in the full light of a cross-burning.

So, for almost three weeks, Sebelius’s office stonewalled, refusing to answer the question of where she had been while people were digging out of Greensburg. Finally, just before Memorial Day weekend, the governor’s press office, apparently responding to White House assertions, revealed to Robert Novak that when the tornado struck Greensburg, Kathleen Sebelius had been with Kathleen Blanco, Louisiana’s ill-starred governor, for New Orleans’ Jazzfest.

An Odd Explanation

Although ink on this peculiar twist of the tale has yet to appear in a single Kansas newspaper, that detail about New Orleans did catch the eye of Phillip Brownlee, the opinion page editor of the Wichita Eagle. He asked the governor’s office for details. Citing Sebelius’s press secretary, Brownlee assured readers of the paper’s blog that “Sebelius didn’t attend any of the jazz festival and left her family in New Orleans, flying back Saturday afternoon using a plane arranged by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Sebelius didn’t go to Greensburg until Sunday, Corcoran said, because Kansas National Guard Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting told her it would be best to wait until then. That way she wouldn’t disrupt ongoing rescue efforts.”

Sebelius’s excuse, however, seems to be at odds not only with unconfirmed Washington rumors that had her hobnobbing with political allies in New Orleans, but also with the direct experience of other officials who immediately raced to Greensburg to see what could be done to help. Sen. Roberts, for example, was on the ground and reporting back to Washington by Saturday afternoon. According to his office, when the storm struck, Roberts cancelled his Saturday morning appointments in Topeka and jumped in his car to head to Greensburg, coordinating along the way with the Kansas Highway Patrol to help the congressmen who were also on their way get through any roadblocks that had been established.

As he drove, his office in Washington was already drafting a letter to Bush asking for expedited federal disaster declarations and expressing Roberts’s concern with the fact that flooding and more tornados were expected to hit the state. When he arrived in Greensburg, a senior staffer in Roberts’s office told me, he met with Bunting, who “never once mentioned any problems with equipment or supplies. When asked repeatedly if he had everything he needed, he said, ‘Yes.’”

The governor’s absence was mystifying to those on the scene, fuelling rumors and speculation. “I know from talking to reporters from about 7:00 EST on, nobody knew where the governor was or when she would show up,” the Roberts staffer told me. “They were asking me if I knew anything.”

Communication seemed to be a problem for Sebelius. “She claimed there was phone tag between her and the White House,” the Roberts staffer said, “but Senator Roberts drove to Pratt on Saturday and called the President from a McDonald’s. He didn’t seem to have a problem.” Two weeks after the disaster, it was Roberts who was invited to deliver the commencement address to Greensburg high school’s graduating class. When the state’s Republican legislature voted $32 million in relief funds a few days later, it was Sebelius who showed up with the check. (Bush had already signed a bill awarding $40 million to help with reconstruction in the area.)

The “Hampered” National Guard

The message from Greensburg continues to play across the country — not the one about red-state Democrats like McKinney and the Midwestern virtues of self-reliance, but the one about bleu-state Democrats like Sebelius and all those “real victims” waiting for the government to show up and save them. Weeks after newspapers carried Sebelius’s admission that she had been wrong in Greensburg, the same newspapers were still carrying editorials and op-eds talking about how using some of the National Guard’s military equipment in Afghanistan and Iraq is “hampering” (to use a favored word) recovery at the disaster site.

It’s a message even the National Guard Bureau, anxious for more money, has happily amplified. The Guard’s top officer, Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, recently told reporters, “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.” For the missing stuff, Blum wants more than $20 billion in compensation, and who doesn’t?

Now, I like Blum. I vaguely remember him from my college days, and I’ve always enjoyed his shoot-from-the-hip style. But lost American lives? Was this more scare-talk? Or was there data to back this up? When I asked a spokesman for Blum to give me a single instance of an American life being lost because of a lack of equipment or time, he couldn’t. So I asked whether, since operations began in Afghanistan and Iraq, there had ever been an instance where the National Guard had been unable to respond when asked to do so.

“No,” the spokesman, Lt. Col. Michael Milord, said.

I asked if the Guard had ever come close to not being able to respond.

“No.”

Even in a case like Hurricane Katrina, he said, where tens of thousands of Guardsmen were on duty, the overwhelming magnitude of the devastation caused by the hurricane “would have been difficult to manage no matter what.” The National Guard can’t prevent natural disasters, after all; they can only respond to them. And, as Milord said, that’s what they’ve invariably done, successfully. The White House claims that National Guard assets are distributed effectively. Indeed, a spokesman for the governor of neighboring Nebraska told me the Nebraska Guard has what it needs — and even a little extra, if Kansas needs the help.

Rebuilding Greensburgh

As for Greensburg — well, it soldiers on. Optimism remains high on Kiowa County’s corner of the plains. Although the town’s exhausted mayor has resigned, still improvements continue, with the electricity coming back on and building sites being cleared. The Memorial Day rodeo, a tradition for more than four decades, went ahead as scheduled.

When I reached Dennis McKinney a little more than a week ago, he was juggling a cell phone while helping a crew of residents tap a hydrant improvisationally linked to a water truck. They’d been at it for a while, he said. What’s it like there now? “Well, a lot of loaders, a lot of trucks, a lot of work.” Suddenly we were interrupted by a whoosh in the background. “Hear that?” he asked. “That’s water!”

I congratulated him, then mentioned that his story of sheltering his daughter during the tornado while she prayed for the safety of her neighbors had really resonated with readers. I’d gotten lots of notes, including some from people who’d written to say that maybe it was his protection of his daughter that had given her the courage to do what she did. He paused for a moment. “That,” said McKinney, “makes my day.”

Denis Boyles is author of the upcoming Superior, Nebraska: The Common Sense Values of America’s Heartland.

Denis BoylesDennis 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), ...

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