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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 15, 2006

Not quite ready for disaster

By Ana Radelat
Gannett News Service


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WASHINGTON With hurricane season less than a month away, Pentagon officials said some of the problems the National Guard and Reserves faced in responding to Hurricane Katrina have yet to be fixed.

The Commission on the National Guard and Reserves recently heard testimony from top military officers who said the Guard has taken steps to address some of its shortcomings.

But when asked if the Pentagon is ready for the next major disaster, Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, said, "No, but we're getting there."

An inability to communicate with state emergency responders and active-duty troops prompted Guard officials to buy $800 million in new communications equipment, said Army Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, head of the National Guard Bureau. He also said the Guard has increased training and disaster planning with state officials.

"Last year, we played the Super Bowl without a huddle or scrimmage," Blum said. "But this year, we have huddled, scrimmaged and have new (communications) equipment."

The Guard also is hampered by a lack of other equipment, much of which it left in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it hasn't met a new congressional requirement to create civil support units of specially trained, full-time guard members in every state. Only 36 units have been created, McHale said.

In addition, there's still no answer to the question of whether and when to transfer National Guard members from state control to federal control during a major disaster.

The Guard plans to meet Wednesday in Baton Rouge, La., with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials and officials from the 11 states most likely to be hit by a hurricane.

Recruitment and retention also have been problems.

The Guard grew from 333,000 troops last year to about 340,000 this year. But Army Major Gen. Roger P. Lempke, head of the Adjutants General Association of the United States, said lengthy deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq have made it harder to keep Guard members with at least 20 years experience.