WASHINGTON – Military and civilian health facilities will be overwhelmed if a nationwide flu pandemic hits the United States, and the National Guard may have to be called out to provide medical help and even enforce a quarantine, the Defense Department warned in a report released Wednesday.
As the Pentagon fights criticism from congressional Democrats that the war in Iraq is depleting the National Guard's ability to help out in domestic crises, the 86-page report says a possible pandemic could require National Guard assistance in supplying medical aid or isolating groups of people to minimize further spread of the disease.
About 3 million people could die as a result of a possible pandemic, with up to 35 percent of the population falling ill, reads the report dated August 2006 and titled "The Department of Defense Implementation Plan for Pandemic Influenza."
According to the report, in the event of a pandemic or a bioterror attack, the Defense Department may be called by the president to assist civilian authorities in minimizing the spread of disease by placing restrictions on interstate transportation. Jurisdictions, the report adds, would be overwhelmed and unable to provide essential commodities and services. In addition, the nation will not be able to rely on airlines.
The report comes on the heels of complaints that the Guardsmen have been spread too thin to respond to a tornado that wiped out 95 percent of Greensburg, Kan. on Sunday. Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and some of her allies in Washington, D.C., have complained that the Guard's emergency response to help displaced residents following the F-5 tornado that killed at least 11 was slowed because equipment is deployed in Iraq.
Speaking after a visit by President Bush to Greensburg on Wednesday, Sebelius said the absence of equipment is an ongoing issue for every governor in the country, and she conveyed her concerns to the president.
"I have been making these points for six months and I'm going to continue making these points," she said after Bush's departure.
"While this administration asks for a blank check to re-supply the Iraqi National Guard they don't have one cent in their budget to resupply the American National Guard," added Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in a speech on the Senate floor. "Now — whether someone believes in war or not — you would think someone would think as much about our Guard as the Iraqi National Guard."
The Pentagon has repeatedly denied claims that the Guard is not equipped to help out. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, testifying on Capitol Hill Wednesday, also noted that his defense budget request for fiscal years 2008 through 2013 includes funding to add supplies to Guard units.
"What I'm told is that that will take the national average of equipment on hand from about 56 percent today to about 76 percent. And the norm, historically, for states, has been about 70 percent," Gates said.
Touring the devastated areas in Kansas on Wednesday, Bush refused to answer a question about the National Guard's emergency response.
"Our role as government officials is to work with the states and local folks to get whatever help is appropriate here, whatever help is in the law be here as quickly as possible," Bush said.
The president did visit a destroyed John Deere dealership where officials were told that the farm and lawn equipment company had pledged to reopen the Greensburg assembly line in order to get equipment built in time for the spring harvest a month and a half away. The company is also sending extra loaders and dumpsters from other areas to help clear out the mess.
FOX News Jennifer Griffin and Nick Simeone contributed to this report.