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Kansas Governor Outlines Tornado Recovery Efforts

May 8, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has spent much of the past several days in Greensburg, coordinating relief and cleanup efforts from Friday’s devastating tornado. She joins us now from the governor’s mansion in Topeka.

And, Governor, I wonder if you can tell us the latest on the death toll in Greensburg.

GOV. KATHLEEN SEBELIUS (D), Kansas: Well, at last count, we had 10 confirmed fatalities in Greensburg and two additional storm-related deaths in two other counties in Kansas. We found a survivor as late as Sunday night, but, unfortunately, we also found two more fatalities yesterday. And I think that’s where it stands right now.

RAY SUAREZ: How close do you think you and local officials are to being able to say with some confidence that you’ve accounted for everybody who was in town when the tornado hit, either relocated, injured or, unfortunately, dead?

GOV. KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: Well, I think we’re relatively close. The good news is the local officials don’t have people coming forward saying, “I can’t find my mother, my aunt, my grandmother.” And in a town of 1,500 people, that’s the best alarm system.

Unfortunately, since it happened Friday night and people scattered at night, we haven’t seen everybody from the community yet. So a pretty laborious task is going on, underway try to go say to folks, “Are you missing anybody? Do you have anybody, any friend, any neighbor, any worker who hasn’t shown up yet?” And that count informally is underway as we speak.

Continuing bad weather

RAY SUAREZ: Kansas has taken a one-two punch. Along with the same storms that brought the tornado came torrential rains and flooding. Is that complicating the work of relief in all the affected areas?

GOV. KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: Well, it certainly has made it challenging. The storm is in south central Kansas, and that's really where emergency personnel were deployed immediately, where first responders were on the scene, where our National Guard troops were sent.

And then, starting a day later, we had tornadoes hit in two other counties in Kansas. And then the rain started. So, in a third area now, in northeast Kansas, around the capital city, we had on Sunday night shelters open in two different areas.

Luckily, the sun is out today. Mother Nature has given us a little breather. And I think the flooding situation may not be as bad as had originally been predicted, although lots of people lost homes, lost cars, and still are trying to pump lots of water out of their houses.

RAY SUAREZ: What are meteorologists telling you about the near future? Are people who are in temporary shelters worried that more tornadoes may touch down in the near future?

GOV. KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: We live in Kansas. We know more tornadoes are coming. That is not a surprise, unfortunately. We just hope it won't be exactly in the same area and certainly not to the magnitude that's going to require the sort of deployed resources that we have right now.

I've seen a lot of tornado damage. I used to be the insurance commissioner and have done this from a different perspective. But having an entire community wiped out simultaneously is unusual, even here in Kansas.

FEMA's response

RAY SUAREZ: How has the performance of FEMA been over the last several days? How would you rate it?

GOV. KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: I'd say they get an A. Clearly, there's lessons learned from former catastrophes, where the response may not have been as rapid.

We were very pleased to have the regional director on the ground in Kansas the day after the tornado. We had a disaster declaration signed by the president within 24 hours of the time that the tornado hit, and that opened up a whole series of new resources.

I spent a lot of yesterday in Greensburg with David Paulison, the FEMA director, who came and committed not only his personnel, who were already there, but the assets that we may need for the long term to recover. And that was good news, that this won't be just a short-term visit, but really a long-term look at how you rebuild a community in rural America.

National Guard's performance

RAY SUAREZ: Governor, let's turn to the role of the National Guard. You've raised concerns in the last few days that the Guard's response was hampered because some equipment and resources have been deployed to Iraq.

The White House took issue with that today. Let's listen to what Press Secretary Tony Snow had to say about conversations you had with key federal officials, including Frances Townsend, the president's assistant on homeland security.

TONY SNOW, White House Press Secretary: The governor said that she had what she needs. She did repeat her testimony that she's been raising the issue about DOD for a number of years, in terms of National Guard deployments. And Fran again said, "Is there anything you need to respond effectively to this disaster?" The governor responded, "No, we could not have asked for a faster response. Dave Paulson was terrific yesterday."

Fran asked a third time. "I want to make sure that we're saying the same thing. Is there anything else you needed for a fast and effective response to the disaster?" And the governor said, "We've got to get power and water running. I've got what I need. I've got your number. I won't be shy. We'll call if I need anything."

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Governor, you heard it there, the White House saying that you've told the federal government you have everything you need. Do you?

GOV. KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: Well, I told Fran today, "I had no idea Tony Snow was on our conversation." But I did tell Fran today that I was very pleased with the rapid response and grateful for the attention of the White House and Homeland Security. I've spoken to Secretary Chertoff. All of that is very good news. And we look forward to welcoming the president here to Kansas tomorrow.

I also told her that I intended to keep making the case about National Guard equipment, not only in Kansas, but around the country. You know, Ray, when I was in Iraq in November of 2005, I was given a list, an equipment list by our engineering company who were about to return to Kansas. They gave me a list of equipment that wouldn't be coming back with them.

And it was such concern of the guys over there that they said, "I want to highlight for you what we need to respond to tornadoes, and snowstorms, and ice storms in Kansas, what we're going to leave behind on the ground that we won't have back in Kansas." And I really started then to join fellow governors in raising this concern.

No question that National Guard equipment is missing, in this four-year war, across the country. What my adjutant general told me yesterday is that, with all of our assets, we can take care of what's going on in Greensburg, Kansas, right now. We've gotten offers of help and support, not only from FEMA, but fellow governors.

But he said, "Governor, I have to tell you, if we have an additional incident," and at that point the storm shelters were still open about the floods, he said, "If we get called upon again, I'm going to have to ask you to make a choice. Which place do you want us to be? Which place do you want our equipment to be?"

That's a terrible choice for anybody to make. That's the point about the missing equipment. Yes, right now in Greensburg, Kansas, we're OK. What if the storm comes back in two days and hits my neighbors in Oklahoma and Colorado? What about the missing equipment in Colorado and California...

Using neighboring states' forces

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me jump in right there, Governor, because one of the things the federal authorities have said is that you are part of a plan that can call on neighboring state forces to help you when you're short. Is that not sufficient?

GOV. KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: It is not sufficient, Ray, when all of us are in the same strapped condition. Recently, General Blum, the national commander for National Guard units across the country, testified in Congress about this very serious shortage for every state in the country.

Today, the Armed Service Readiness Subcommittee unanimously -- Republicans and Democrats -- approved additional resources for Guard equipment at home.

You know, I was sworn in as governor in January of 2003. Two months later, we went to Iraq, and Kansas National Guard troops and troops across the country have been deployed ever since. There are about 40 percent of the troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I am so proud of the role our men and women play, and they do it selflessly. They are citizen soldiers. And I'm proud of my role as commander-in-chief of the National Guard. But, frankly, they're being asked currently to do two jobs, used in a way they've never been used before in the history of the country, in the history of the Guard. And they only have equipment to do one.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, as you mentioned, Governor, you'll be sharing your concerns with the president tomorrow. I'm sorry, our time is short. Thank you very much for joining us.

GOV. KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: I will be. Thank you.