National Guard preparedness not a concern here

Some Mississippi Army National Guard units that have deployed to Iraq left over half their equipment overseas, but officials here say they still have the tools needed to respond to a hurricane this year.

Officials in many disaster-prone states are concerned their citizen soldiers are ill-equipped to adequately handle their stateside duties.

Just this week, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said a lack of equipment and personnel slowed the Guard response to deadly tornadoes last Friday that killed at least 11 people in that state. And Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's office said this week in a memo that his state is facing "critical equipment shortfalls."

Governors in other states also say their Guard forces don't have the resources they need to handle a major catastrophe, but that's not a concern shared by Gov. Haley Barbour.

"The governor is very confident the National Guard is ready to thoroughly handle any emergency," spokesman Pete Smith said.

Mississippi Emergency Management Agency Director Mike Womack agrees the Mississippi Guard is ready for the upcoming hurricane season, but he added that on a national level, Guard forces are facing equipment shortages.

"We are at war and we have to support that as well. I cannot speak for the rest of the nation. I do think we need to look as a nation at funding the National Guard, equipping them because there are shortfalls in Guard equipment," said Womack, a retired Guard lieutenant colonel. "We do need to look overall budget-wise in funding the National Guard. But Mississippi is in good shape this year."

The Pentagon concedes that Army National Guard units have only 56 percent of the equipment they need, which is the lowest level since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the Bush administration hopes to convince Congress to provide $22 billion to Guard forces over the next five years to beef equipment levels up to 76 percent.

Maj. Gen. Harold A. Cross, Mississippi's adjutant general, told The Associated Press that Mississippi's engineering brigades "have about 45 percent of their equipment back from the war, but they have 100 percent of the equipment they need to fight a hurricane."

Cross said most of the equipment the Mississippi Guard left in Iraq was up-armored Humvees and trucks.

"What you look at in terms of fighting a hurricane is engineering equipment, and making sure the (military police) have enough Humvees to get around," he said.

The state will also have thousands more Mississippi Army National Guard soldiers available this year for the storm season than when Katrina hit in August of 2005, Cross said.

There were nearly 4,000 state Guard soldiers deployed to Iraq during Katrina, but this year there are only about 350 overseas. Cross said 8,500 Mississippi Guard soldiers are available this year for duty if a hurricane strikes.