Nearly 16,000 highly trained, well-equipped war fighters are sitting on the sidelines in the battle for the Gulf Coast — and the fault lies not with the federal government but with the governors of the affected states.
Bobby Jindal, Haley Barbour, Bob Riley and Charlie Crist are respectively the commanders in chief for the National Guard in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. It is their responsibility to direct the troops at their disposal. And quite an army it is: As of May 3rd, the Pentagon has authorized 17,500 guardsmen to respond to the BP spill — free of charge to the states. The federal government will front the costs, which will ultimately be passed on to the oil giant.
But more than six weeks later, the region's governors have deployed just 1,585 guardsmen — less than ten percent of this oil-fighting force — to the frontlines. And they are sorely needed: More than 160 miles of coastline in these four states are currently inundated with BP crude. If all of these soldiers were deployed, it would represent a nearly 50 percent surge over the 35,000 disaster responders currently in the Gulf.
According to National Incident Commander Admiral Thad Allen, the responsibility for the delay rests directly with the Gulf governors: "It’s pretty much up to the governors, and how they want to deploy the National Guard," Allen said in response to a question from Rolling Stone during a press conference on June 23. The governors, he said, have to pre-clear the work they're assigning to the National Guard with the federal response team, but this is a formality. "We have not turned down any requests thus far," said Allen.
Related: Tim Dickinson blogs about all the news that fits, from the Beltway and beyond on the National Affairs blog.
In comments that received little notice at the time, President Obama appealed directly to the region's governors to avail themselves of the troops at their disposal during his Oval Office address on June 15: "These servicemen and women are ready to help stop the oil from coming ashore, they’re ready to help clean the beaches, train response workers, or even help with processing claims — and I urge the governors in the affected states to activate these troops as soon as possible."
The ongoing failure to deploy the National Guard is particularly striking in the case Jindal, a likely contender for the GOP's 2012 presidential nomination who has emerged as one of the most strident critics of the Obama administration's cleanup response. The Louisiana governor has repeatedly railed against the administration for not providing enough resources to adequately wage what the governor is calling a War Against Oil. "We need the federal government to understand that we are in a war to protect our way of life," Jindal said on June 16. "What we want is results."
But as commander in chief of Louisiana, Jindal has only himself to blame for leaving more than 80 percent of the troops available to the state idle. As of June 23rd, only 1,045 Louisiana guardsmen out of an authorized force of 6,000 had been activated, according to data provided to Rolling Stone by the Department of Homeland Security.
Perhaps more shocking, Jindal's record is actually the best in the region. In Alabama, where Riley recently called on his state's residents to join him in a Day of Prayer for a solution to the Gulf disaster, the GOP governor has activated just 439 of the 3,000 National Guard troops authorized to assist in the cleanup effort. In Mississippi, where Republican Haley Barbour has repeatedly downplayed the scope of the disaster — calling the presence of tar balls on the state's beaches "no big deal" — the governor has deployed just 64 out of 6,000 troops at his disposal. In Florida, meanwhile, independent governor Crist has 2,500 troops available. He's activated only 37.
Calls to each of the governors' press secretaries seeking explanation for the delay in deployment were not returned.