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Governor raps US on storm response

Members of the Kansas National Guard and postal inspectors raised an American flag yesterday over the rubble of the US Post Office destroyed when a tornado hit Greensburg, Kan., Friday. (KAREN WAGNER/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration and the governor of Kansas pointed fingers at each other yesterday over the response to last week's devastating tornado. By lunchtime, both sides had backed down.

With President Bush set to travel to Greensburg, Kan., today to view the destruction wrought by Friday's 205-mile-per-hour twister, Governor Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, said she planned to discuss with Bush 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, with other states facing similar limitations, "stuff that we would have borrowed is gone."

White House press secretary Tony Snow fought back aggressively.

In an approach reminiscent of the dispute between the White House and another Democratic governor, Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana, after the federal government's much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina, Snow at first said the fault for any slow response would be Sebelius's. He said she should have followed procedure by finding gaps and then asking the federal government to fill them -- but didn't.

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.

But at Snow's second briefing with reporters at midday , he said the state had requested several items that the federal government supplied -- the radios, a mobile command center and a mobile office building, an urban search and rescue team, and coordination on extra Blackhawk 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 on the tornado and had everything she needed.

About the same time, Sebelius was also backpedaling.

Her spokeswoman, Nicole Corcoran, said the governor didn't mean to imply that the state was ill-equipped to deal with this storm. Sebelius's comments about National Guard equipment were, instead, meant as a warning about the state's inability to handle additional disasters, such as another tornado or severe flooding, she said.

"We are doing absolutely fine right now," Corcoran said. "What the governor is talking about is down the road."

Meanwhile, a 46-year-old police officer injured during the tornado died yesterday morning. Officer Robert Tim Buckman was rushing to warn rural residents about the approaching storm when the tornado swept up his squad car and flung it 300 yards into a field.

He clung to life long enough for his daughter's wedding at his hospital bedside, then died of his injuries yesterday morning, his son, Derick Buckman, said.

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