THE MAGAZINE

State Perspective – Kansas

By Joseph Straw

Maj. Gen. Tod M. Bunting is director of Kansas Emergency Management and homeland security adviser to the governor. He serves simultaneously as Adjutant General of Kansas, overseeing 7,700 soldiers and airmen of the Kansas Army and Air National Guard; he has held both posts since January 2004. This year, Bunting oversaw response to the EF5 tornado that destroyed the town of Greensburg on May 4, killing ten people.

Bunting was commissioned in the Kansas Air National Guard in 1979 and has served in various units handling operations, personnel, services, and information management. He received the Meritorious Service Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal. (His remarks have been edited for space limitations. View the full interview online.)

Q. What are your responsibilities?

A. Kansas takes a regional approach to homeland security, with one homeland security coordinator assigned to each of seven regions. I deal with them on a regular basis. I also deal with other agencies that are my agency’s closest partners, which are the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the Kansas Highway Patrol, and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. We work as a group to make sure that we have fused information and good cohesive efforts around the state.

Q. Can you talk about the Greensburg tornado and the state’s response?

A. We are a state with a history of emergencies. We’ve had ice storms and blizzards and floods, so we work together and we’ve all trained together in incident command systems. That helped us immensely, as did the regional approach.

The tornado hit Greensburg at about 9:47 p.m. on a Friday evening, and we’d been tracking it in our emergency operations center. We have a great relationship with the National Weather Service and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) so we saw the severe weather. At 9:00 that night Matt Mercer, who is our regional coordinator for Southwest Kansas, was tracking the storm on the ground and was calling in or sending e-mails telling us it looked like the storm was headed for Greensburg.

He was safe, but on a very sad note, to the north, one of our storm spotters (Macksville Police Officer Tim Buckman) was killed. We think he was watching the big tornado, and a spin-off tornado got him.

Since we were tracking the storm’s path, both on the ground and with radar, we could send response units to Greensburg before it hit or certainly right after it hit. Mercer got to town and called in our Communication on Wheels unit because we knew that the area had lost all power and communications. We also knew we were going to need search and rescue, so we started to roll that out that same evening.

But the biggest thing to keep in mind is that we were in tornado watch or warning for an unprecedented amount of time—for two days statewide.  So responders were in constant danger, not just residents.

Q. How do you keep your people safe in a situation like that?

A. Communications and just situational awareness. It took several days’ work with cellular providers to get the phone service back up, but again, the Communication on Wheels, we actually call it “COW”—kind of a Kansas thing—is a tractor-trailer-sized unit that has a giant antenna on it. It has portable radios, it can back up a community’s 9-1-1 system, it has its own means to handle incident communications. We got it on scene in about two hours from Wichita, plus we have our own command and control vehicle with similar capabilities, so we quickly had the capability for first responders to talk to one another. Getting deployable communications to Greensburg as quickly as possible made a huge difference in coordinating the search and rescue and bringing in resources in a logical manner.

Q. What did your agency learn?

A. Every leader in that county was affected by the storm, so incident command was actually done by county-level people from elsewhere in the state, which is not common, but it worked. If you had been there at 8:00 in the morning Saturday and saw what was going on, you would have thought that the incident command in the area were hometown people.

I think it worked well because we had trained on it, and people on the ground understood that they were there acting on behalf of a devastated community, and they were very sensitive to making sure that they at least consulted community leaders on decisions that had long-term impact. So that was probably a lesson-learned. You can actually have incident command not be from the incident area, at least in the first few days.

Q. After the storm, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said overseas deployments have strained the National Guard’s ability to respond to disasters at home. Do you agree?

A. Of course I agree with her, for two reasons: One, first and foremost, she’s my boss. And second, she’s correct.  The interpretation that it affected our ability to handle this one storm, I think, was taken out of context. What she meant was that the amount of our equipment deployed overseas limits our ability to handle more than one storm.

We responded to this storm in very good fashion. But the concern was that if we had another major storm in the state, with only about 50 percent of our major equipment stateside, it would have stretched us perilously thin. And yes, we know we could have gone to neighboring states and gotten assistance. But in many cases, your response needs to be within hours, not a day or two away.

In this case, with Greensburg for example, our engineering battalion only has 20 percent of their trucks and trailers to actually haul their engineering equipment. We’re okay on dump trucks and the big cranes, but we only have 20 percent of the vehicles to haul them. So we had to make two trips. So that did make an impact. It did not in any way affect loss of life, but it did slow the response down.

Q. Is it a challenge to shift from military to civil service?

A. It’s not a military atmosphere, but it is disciplined, it is rigorous. There’s a reason for everything and an order to it, and that’s what you need to bring order out of chaos. As proud as I am to be a service member, I continue to be impressed with, and it’s an honor to serve along with, other professionals that are in the business of saving lives.

Q. Does your agency collaborate with the private sector?  If so, how?

A. Oh, absolutely. Some of the first people we call in these events are Kansas Association of Contractors, and the Land Improvement Contractors of Kansas. I would give us a big “A” for effort and about a “C+” for being as far along as I’d like to be. I’m a hard grader because I believe that you’re touching on what is the next really huge step, and that is those industry partnerships—what they can bring to bear.

Q. Has your agency conducted any major drills recently?

A. Absolutely. We do at least one giant drill a year and probably five or six others at different times. Foreign animal disease is our worst-case scenario as far as using up our resources, if not necessarily a worst-case scenario when in comes to loss of human life. It would primarily be a long-term threat to quality of life and cost of living due to stop-movement. We have a logistics study going on right now to determine the best place to house a major surge capacity if we had an incident, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has hired a homeland security expert to work closely with us.

Q. What are your agency’s top goals for the coming year?

A. The top goal has to be to continue to maximize opportunities for people to train together, to be able to communicate with each other, and build the relationships so that when something happens we’re not meeting each other for the first time. We’re all part of one cohesive Kansas team, and sometimes with other states. We have some great friends from Mississippi that are here helping us with this storm like we helped them out after Katrina, and that’s just the best part of America, is to see that people can pull together in the toughest of times.

 


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