WASHINGTON - The Bush administration and the Kansas governor started pointing fingers at each other yesterday over the response to last week's devastating tornado that killed 11 people. By lunchtime, both sides had backed down.
With President Bush set to travel to now-razed Greensburg, Kan., today to view the destruction wrought by Friday's 205 m.p.h. twister, Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said she planned to talk with him about her contention that National Guard deployments to Iraq hampered the disaster response.
"I don't think there is any question if you are missing trucks, humvees and helicopters, that the response is going to be slower," she said Monday. "The real victims here will be the residents of Greensburg, because the recovery will be at a slower pace."
Sebelius said that because other states faced similar limitations, "stuff that we would have borrowed is gone."
White House press secretary Tony Snow responded aggressively. Snow at first said the fault for any slow response would be Sebelius'. He said she should have followed procedure by finding gaps and then asking the federal government to fill them - but didn't.
"If you don't request it, you're not going to get it," he told reporters yesterday morning.
Snow said no one had asked for heavy equipment. "As far as we know, the only thing the governor has requested are FM radios," the spokesman said.
At Snow's second briefing with reporters, at midday, he offered that it turned out that the state had requested several items that the federal government supplied - those radios, and also a mobile command center and a mobile office building, an urban search-and-rescue team, and coordination on extra Black Hawk helicopters.
Snow recounted a phone conversation yesterday between Sebelius and Bush's White House-based homeland security adviser, Fran Townsend, in which the governor said she was pleased with the federal performance and had everything she needed.
About the same time, Sebelius was doing her own backpedal.
Her spokeswoman, Nicole Corcoran, said the governor did not mean to imply that the state was ill-equipped to deal with this storm. Sebelius' comments about National Guard equipment were meant as a warning about the state's inability to handle additional disasters, such as another tornado, Corcoran said.